(A version of this piece appears in Zeek Magazine)
Now, here’s a sequence of events.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu states that Israel would not be bullied into peace. The implication, that peace is something the Netanyahu government is, at best, not enthused about, was lost on most of the media.
Where did this tough stance in the face of pressure come from? Well, it turns out that he was referring to an idea that was soon reported by David Ignatius in the Washington Post. According to Ignatius, President Barack Obama is seriously considering putting forth an American peace plan that would be accompanied by American pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to accept it in principle.
One day later, Netanyahu decided not to attend a summit on nuclear weapons being organized by Obama in
Washington. The excuse he offered was that Arab states intended too bring up Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its possession of nuclear weapons. Bibi defines this as “Israel-bashing,” a fairly absurd characterization since Israel is well-known as having nuclear weapons (and really makes no secret of it), and it’s more than fair that this be brought up.
More to the point, Bibi surely knew that Arab states would raise this issue in a private meeting long before he accepted the invitation to attend. No, his reason for cancelling is the ongoing tension with Washington over building in Jerusalem, the fact that he would not have had a personal meeting with Obama on the trip and the new idea of an American peace plan.
What can be gleaned from these events? The most obvious point is that the Obama Administration is forcing Netanyahu to make it more and more obvious that he does not want peace. The mantra that Bibi has repeated — “Israel desperately desires peace but has no partner”– has been exposed as paper-thin dissembling. The current Israeli government has no interest in evacuating any settlements, sharing Jerusalem in any way or withdrawing Israeli troops from any of the West Bank. They certainly have interest in finding a way to connect Gaza to the West Bank, much less see the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In other words, between the governments in Jerusalem and Ramallah, it is Jerusalem that is refusing to help the United States pursue its interests in the region.
Netanyahu has forced the issue by his refusal to stop creating facts on the ground. His repeated statements about previous governments building in Jerusalem is phony; no previous government has so deliberately placed Jewish settlers among Arabs and built with the obvious intention to preclude the possibility of splitting Jerusalem between the two parties. No government since Yitzhak Shamir has so blatantly defied US interests in the region, and Shamir paid the price for doing so.
Does the US actually have a peace plan? Right now, no, and the real question is whether they will have one later in the year. Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine has been unequivocal in his tweets, saying there is no plan. Daniel Levy of the Middle East Channel is less certain.
I don’t think this is just a bluff. A realistic plan isn’t all that hard to come up with. The Clinton Parameters offer Obama the basic outline, needing only some tweaking to bring them up to date and account for the changed realities on the ground and in the US-Israel relationship. The leak now was intentional, based on the fact that Obama doesn’t intend to present any kind of plan until autumn at the earliest. He’s giving Israel an opportunity to come up with a peace plan of its own.
And this brings the question home to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There simply isn’t any doubt that the clear majority of Israelis want the occupation ended. They know what it is doing to Israel’s international standing, that it threatens Israeli business interests in the global market and that it threatens Israeli security. Recent polling indicates that Netanyahu derives his public support not from his refusal to negotiate but from the belief that a leader like Netanyahu will best safeguard Israeli security in any peace agreement.
But politically, Bibi leads a government that is an Israeli reflection of the Republican Party’s mantra “no to everything.” Eventually, he will have to choose between keeping this coalition and trying to find a way to stay in office while actually acting on the desires of the Israeli people.
The American Strategy
Obama, for his part, is supported by public opinion, his diplomatic corps and the American military leadership. Only Congress remains mired in the nonsensical obstructionism of the AIPACs, Marty Peretzes and Abe Foxmans of the world who are so intent on supporting Israeli refusal that they are willing to sacrifice the lives of Israelis and any possibility of a democratic Israel in the future to do it.
Obama is acting on this advice, and on years of analysis by the overwhelming majority of Middle East experts that says that settling this conflict is a major American interest, despite its domestic political difficulties.
The radical left will not embrace Obama’s action or his eventual proposed solutions since they will not be based on a sudden adoption of a populist Palestinian agenda, and they will not spring from an American turn away from Israel and toward the Arabs.
The Obama Administration did not suddenly find great love for the Palestinians. The Palestinians have always been, and remain, a problem, not an ally. They offer the US nothing in partnership for they have nothing to give. They are merely a thorn in American strategy in the region. Israel is the partner, and will remain so. Only the most radical pro-settlement fanatic could possibly see Obama’s current actions as “appeasement.”
It is Israel’s inability to come up with a peace plan of its own since Ehud Barak’s failed “generous offer” a decade ago which forces a choice on Obama: either live with the status quo or bring your own plan.
So what could make this work?
The timing is crucial. Obama should give Israel until the day after mid-term elections. If no reasonable Israeli plan which can be realistically negotiated with the Palestinians is apparent by that time, and it is unlikely that one would be, he should present the American version.
The substance should be based on the Clinton Parameters. Obama can’t start from scratch. The Clinton Parameters are universally viewed (fanatics excepted) as a fair and workable basis for an agreement, with some need to negotiate the specifics. Change them a bit to account for the passage of ten years, but only as much as is pragmatic. Then bring the parties together to work out the details, with American mediation, within that framework.
Bring the carrots and the sticks. Both the Palestinians and Israelis must understand that American support will diminish if they drag their feet or, worse, refuse to cooperate at all. The Palestinians must be clear that Obama is going farther to pursue their interests than any previous President, and they need to follow his lead, not up the ante. Incitement must cease, fiery rhetoric must be stowed and the Palestinian people need to be told, unequivocally, that there will be no significant return of refugees to Israel. Israel must be told that American military and diplomatic cooperation will diminish if they refuse to evacuate settlements from the areas demarcated for Palestine. Both sides must also be clear that America will act forcefully to protect their mutual security and will go to great lengths to help fund the costs of evacuating Israelis from the West Bank and for building a Palestinian state.
Zero tolerance for domestic politics as an obstacle. Finally, Obama must make it clear that, while America will do its best to proceed pragmatically, peace cannot be held hostage to domestic politics any longer. The Israeli, Palestinian and American (including Jewish-American) populations all support a two-state solution along the lines of the Clinton Parameters. Thus, domestic constraints are not a reasonable excuse to block peace. And Obama must include Congress in that view. He must keep Congress informed and in the loop, but must also make it clear that opposition to peace will incur the wrath of the President.
These steps can work, if Obama can see them through. There will be political storms. The radical elements in the US that have controlled the debate on this issue (AIPAC, the AJC, the Christian Right, the neocons and assorted radicals like Foxman, Peretz, Ed Koch, Charles Krauthammer and others who resist the two-state solution) who represent a minority of Jewish and Christian opinion on this issue will buck like broncos. So will the settlers, Hamas, and other radical rejectionists. But a lasting agreement will bury them all in the dustbin of history. That’s the power an American President has, and if Obama is willing to run the risks, he’ll find that the rewards will be tremendous, both in current domestic politics and in his historical legacy.