Did Benjamin Netanyahu overplay his hand?
Probably not, but he’s definitely testing the boundaries. That is the only way to explain his going beyond even his own usual hubris and obnoxiousness this week.
What looked at first like more of the same old Bibi nonsense – he comes to the US, Israel announces more building in both East Jerusalem and Ariel – has morphed into something more. The Obama Administration, displaying what is by now its customary weakness in the face of Israeli intransigence, merely said it was “disappointed” with the new construction.
There was little else there of substance, and Israel could simply have gone along its merry way, continuing to build while Bibi whipped the zealous masses into a frenzy in New Orleans. Instead, Netanyahu decided to escalate the matter by stating that building in Jerusalem is completely separate from peace negotiations.
This is a total re-framing of the issue, and one the Americans could not just ignore. They directly contradicted Bibi’s statement, drawing a line in the sand. Again, though, it was a mere statement; there seems to be no consequences from Washington if Bibi continues to defy them. That may change in the next few days, but thus far, Bibi seems to be making it even clearer than before that he will do what he wants with the full knowledge that the United States will do nothing to stop him, even if it makes America look absolutely impotent.
Some see Bibi’s move here as a test of the post-election Obama, a sort of poke to see if Obama is going to be even weaker with an incoming Republican House and smaller Democratic majority in the Senate than he was with the Democrats in full control of Congress. I think it’s actually directed at that incoming Congress and to the Jewish and Christian activists who will bring the pressure next year to prevent any move toward peace.
Bibi is sending a message that he believes the time is ripe, with the incoming Congress, to put the final nail in the coffin of the idea of a Palestinian state. He’s doing it on two fronts: Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs.
Bibi is hoping to re-orient American policy on both of these issues by bringing them more out into the open.
On Jerusalem, Israeli statements about the city being “the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish people” have always been more or less ignored in Washington. They were treated as an Israeli stance, one which they were entitled to hold as long as Jerusalem was still a final status issue, subject to negotiation.
With increased building in East Jerusalem in the past two years, the stance is no longer mere ideology. But Bibi is not satisfied with the status quo. He wants American backing for all of Greater Jerusalem to remain in Israeli hands. Oh, perhaps he will be magnanimous and speak of “giving up” some of the Arab neighborhoods on the outskirts of the Greater Jerusalem area (which, on the eastern side, has grown from about 6 square kilometers in 1967 to 65 today). But in essence, he wants America to support an undivided Israeli Jerusalem as part of a final status vision.
Bibi hopes that the new Republican Congress will push for that result, with the support of AIPAC, CUFI and the other ideologically motivated activist groups. He probably doesn’t anticipate that they can force such a scenario on the Obama Administration, but he probably does hope that it will lay the groundwork to make American support for an undivided Israeli Jerusalem a political reality under Obama’s successor.
Bibi’s ambitions don’t stop there. While the United States argues with him about Jerusalem, scant attention is being paid to the plans to expand the settlement of Ariel. Here, he is working on another point that has lurked under the surface for years, but has never been confirmed: the notion that “everyone knows” Israel will keep the large settlements of Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim.
This assumption has been in place for some time and got a big boost from George W. Bush in 2004 when he sent a letter to Ariel Sharon expressing the view that “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949…” Since then, the assumption in Israel and in “pro-Israel” quarters in the US has been that Israel will keep the major settlement blocs.
The United States, however, has never officially endorsed that specific view, just the abstract notion that the borders will not be the same as the pre-1967 ones. One need only look at a map (see below) to see why.
While some land exchange might lead to an accommodation regarding the Etzion bloc, Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim cut into the West Bank to such a degree that a viable and contiguous Palestinian state is impossible.
In simple practical terms of geographic viability, there can conceivably be a Palestinian state without Jerusalem. The obstacles there are political (and even greater than the physical ones). But if Bibi can pull off his undivided Jerusalem goal, keeping Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim will be a snap. If he fails on Jerusalem, keeping those blocs may be either the fallback position or could be accomplished while everyone fights over Jerusalem.
Bibi’s recent behavior seems to me to be laying the groundwork for this strategy. He is pursuing a vision of disconnecting Israel from the Palestinians in something along the lines of the current planned route of the Separation Barrier (see map below). He’ll be happy to let the Palestinians call what he is leaving them a state, since he will have already secured, thanks to Obama’s foolhardiness and Dennis Ross’ chicanery, an ongoing Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.
The necessary response couldn’t be clearer. The United States must not only make it clear that Jerusalem is a “final status” issue, but that any final agreement must include sharing Jerusalem in some manner. They must also make it clear that any negotiations about borders begin with the basis of the 1949 Armistice line (the “Green Line,” as it’s called).
None of that means breaking new ground. Not only does that square perfectly with the Arab Peace Initiative, but it was even written down by President Bill Clinton a decade ago, in his last ditch attempt to forge an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama thus far has been loath to make such declarations, to put it mildly. But Bibi is forcing his hand. Accepting and endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative or at least reaffirming the Clinton Parameters as the basis of an American vision of resolving this conflict is going to be a must if Bibi is going to pursue this course.
It seems unlikely that Obama will have the courage to take this step on his own. It is therefore absolutely critical that anyone who values the two-state solution throw everything they have at pushing Obama to do it.