The ongoing spat between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United States President Barack Obama has drowned out an important issue. The entire question of the Israel-Palestine conflict seems to be out of sight and out of mind in Washington and the mainstream media. Instead, the focus has been on diplomatic protocols: on what the United States is or is not willing to concede to Iran in talks, on whether Israel can be trusted with sensitive updates on those talks, and on whether issuing renewed sanctions against Iran is a foolish idea.
Traditionally, the United States and the international community in general don’t even try to push peace in Israel’s direction when the Jewish state is in the midst of electoral campaign season. That’s what is happening now as well, despite the drama stirred up by Bibi and his congressional cohorts John Boehner (R-OH) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Staying out of Israeli elections is conventional wisdom, but is it the right move now?
A new report issued yesterday strongly suggests otherwise. It’s written by Michael Cohen, a fellow at the Century Foundation, and Matthew Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (full disclosure, I work with Matt at FMEP, where I am the program director). Titled The United States and Israel at a Crossroads, the report is based on some polling recently done in Israel to gauge the Israeli public’s responses to various steps the United States might take to move the peace process forward, as well as direct conversations with a number of Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leaders.
The Concerns of Israelis
Unsurprisingly, Israelis are skittish about any U.S. interference in their internal politics. Leaving aside the irony of that sentiment in light of recent events, Israelis do still understand that they need U.S. support. They also understand, based on the polling data, that their own government’s policies are putting the United States in an increasingly difficult position. Furthermore, they are open to Washington pursuing certain actions, particularly regarding settlements.
From these data, Duss and Cohen gauge what might be both practical and politically feasible and make the following recommendations:
- Make clear that while the United States remains committed to Israel’s genuine security requirements and right to defend itself, it will cease to expend significant diplomatic capital to protect Israel from international actions against Israeli policies that are contrary to U.S. positions, such as settlement expansion.
- Once again publicly refer to settlements as “illegal” rather than the current “illegitimate.” While the final disposition of the settlements will be determined by negotiations, until that time it remains the legal opinion of the U.S. State Department that they are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and this should be stated clearly by U.S. spokespersons.
- Offer support for a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemns Israel’s policy of settlement construction, particularly those outside the major settlement blocs.
- Work with its partners to produce a UN Security Council resolution setting clear terms of reference for negotiations, similar to those articulated by President Obama himself in his May 2011 speech at the State Department.
- Announce plans to more closely scrutinize the tax-exempt status of U.S. organizations that support the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to ensure that these activities do not violate U.S. laws and guidelines for charitable contributions and tax-exempt purposes.
- Publicly present the framework of a final status agreement that would lead to the creation of two states for two peoples along the lines of the Clinton Parameters. This framework would take into account Israel’s legitimate security concerns and would include recognition of Israel by the Arab League, per the Arab Peace Initiative.
These ideas are sure to strike many as modest, even as they send chills up the spines of some of the Netanyahu government’s most strident supporters, especially among the small, but influential minority of right-wing U.S. Jews and the larger cadre of so-called “Christian Zionists.” Only a few short years ago, they would also have been dismissed as wholly unrealistic. Things have changed.
Many will focus on the mutual loathing between Netanyahu and Obama to explain that change. But the cause is really more basic than that. Despite the jingoistic political rhetoric, embraced so tightly by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, that there is “no daylight” between Israeli and U.S. policies, there has in fact always been such daylight. Events in the Middle East and, more importantly, domestic politics in both Israel and the United States have increased the gap in recent years. Although the fissures are still not visible in Congress on the Palestinian question, they can be seen just about everywhere else.
A Shifting Consensus
No doubt, readers out there will have their own ideas about what they’d recommend to Obama. But what is particularly striking about these ideas is that they are all politically viable. That is not to say they would not be opposed, even by some prominent Democrats. But neither would they be the kind of political poison they were a few years ago.
In 2015, a liberal hawk like Bill Maher can be heard to say that “…we’re getting very close on the Iran issue to allowing Israel to write American policy,” and it hardly causes a murmur in response. John Kerry betrays his true views of Israel’s Gaza assault when a camera catches him sarcastically grumbling “it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” in reference to Israel’s wildly disproportionate assault on the Strip.
Perhaps most significantly, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, speaking at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, warned the Israelis that if a genuine effort for reviving a peace process was not made after the election, “’international actions’ [would be] pursued not by the Palestinians, but rather by the international community ‘in terms of a Security Council resolution’ to ‘lay out and preserve the principles of a two state solution in the future.’”
That’s a pretty strong indication that the Obama administration’s thinking is similar to that of Cohen and Duss, and that the White House is seriously considering crafting something in the Security Council that would spell out international expectations of Israel and the Palestinians for the ultimate resolution of this conflict. It would be an unprecedented step, and not an easy one. Surely Russia and China would have a different view than France and Great Britain, let alone the United States of how such a document should look. And that’s before we even consider the non-permanent members of the Council.
Still, just the fact that such an idea is even floating around policy circles in Washington, and even at the White House, is remarkable. No doubt, if Obama were to take such steps, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle would oppose him, and there would be a loud outcry from various sectors. But the polling data on which Cohen and Duss based their report shows that significant numbers of Israelis are worried about precisely such outcomes. Strong minorities, and in some cases majorities, would place the blame for such actions on the Israeli, rather than the U.S. government.
More research is surely needed, but the polling done for this report raises some interesting possibilities. Let’s keep in mind that these questions were being asked while Israelis are still relatively certain that the United States will have their back, not only in the military sense, but also in terms of boycotts and other forms of international isolation. Yet, of the six policy recommendations listed above, the one Indyk is warning Israelis about is perhaps the harshest measure.
It has long been my belief that if the United States should take such recommended actions, this would be more than sufficient to convince the majority of Israelis, in and out of government, to push for a change in their policies regarding the occupation and Palestinian rights. Despite Israel’s sharp right turn, I still believe that. There has never been a better time to put it to the test.