by Mitchell Plitnick
The tentative outreach from Washington toward Tehran has spurred speculation about a wide variety of connected issues. The desperation with which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” adds fuel to Israel’s part in those rumors. Certainly, it is clear that Netanyahu is worried about something.
The Israeli journalist Ben Caspit speculated last week on a U.S. plan to facilitate a (rather favorable for Israel) two-state deal between Israel and the Palestinians, while compensating Israel with the carrot of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. Caspit’s view was broadly echoed in Ha’aretz by Barak Ravid after Rouhani’s speech at the United Nations.
According to Caspit, U.S. President Barack Obama was pressing Netanyahu to accede to his outline for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In exchange for that acquiescence, Obama would, in this scenario, offer Netanyahu his personal pledge that he would prevent Iran from “acquiring nuclear capability.” That phrase is important, but it’s not entirely clear that Caspit, a native Hebrew speaker, included it intentionally. Indeed, “nuclear capability” is very possibly a threshold Iran has already passed, perhaps even a good number of years ago. Caspit may have meant that Obama would roll that ability back (though the fruits of research cannot be reversed, Iran’s uranium stockpiles and its refinement capabilities could, theoretically, be severely diminished or removed). Or he may have meant what he said.
In any case, Caspit posits that the deal Obama wants Israel and the Palestinians to accept is as follows:
- The permanent agreement will be implemented in phases, and the first phase will have a Palestinian state in a temporary border.
- The United States will commit to the Palestinian Authority to ensure that the full agreement will be implemented according to an established schedule.
- The issues of Jerusalem, the refugees and final borders will be postponed to later stages.
- The Palestinian state will be recognized by the United Nations, with the support of Israel, which will withdraw to the separation fence line.
- Any settlers wishing to stay in what will be Palestinian territory will be able to, provided they are willing to live under Palestinian rule.
- Israel will enact a generous “eviction-compensation” law, with international funding, and the settlers living in remote areas will converge to the borders of the separation line.
If this looks to you like the Oslo Accords reborn, you’re right. But it is also true that Israel’s current government will balk even at this, and it is almost certainly the best deal the Palestinians are likely to get as long as Netanyahu is in office. That alone makes it credible that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would agree to such a deal, even though it is highly unlikely to be met with the approval of the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians living in the West Bank.
Caspit reports that many members of Netanyahu’s party and other right-wing politicians and leaders of the settler collective are already mobilizing to thwart this idea. I have no reason to doubt that part of Caspit’s story. He is generally pretty good at getting the inside scoop in Israeli political maneuverings. And, some of my own contacts in Israel have been telling me that the right is very concerned about Netanyahu accepting some U.S. ideas about an agreement.
But Caspit has always seemed to me to be less solid on international matters. The Iran part of his story sounds pretty fishy. If Obama has any hope of lowering the temperature with Iran, something he seems committed to doing, he will have to find a way to live with Iran having enrichment capabilities on its own soil. Iran, as Obama well knows, will not agree to give that up, though they might consent to close monitoring of the process by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As far as obtaining a pledge from Obama in this regard, that seems like a rather meager payment for Netanyahu. Congressional hawks have already gotten U.S. commitments to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, and should we discover that Iran has resumed a pursuit of such weapons, there would be plenty of time to mount a military operation. The U.S. has already taken these stances. Obama’s pledge would add little, even if Netanyahu is concerned about a repeat of the backing off from an attack on Syria. If similar opposition to an attack on Iran materialized, a pledge would hardly be sufficient to overcome it, and Congress is unlikely in any case to oppose a strike on Iran the way it did the one on Syria.
No, I don’t think Caspit has the Iran part correct. Its purpose in the narrative is to give Obama something that is both carrot for Bibi and stick, but it would be neither. The value of that part is already in Bibi’s pocket.
But Caspit is very likely correct about that which is concerning the Israeli right. Any deal that is more forthcoming to the Palestinians than the one he describes would never pass Israel’s government, and the U.S. Congress would back the Israeli position to the hilt, mooting the already essentially non-existent hope of genuine U.S. pressure on Israel. But this one could win enough of Bibi’s current government so that Labor and perhaps another small party or two would be able to seal the deal. It would be met with Israeli approval, which means it will also be met with sufficient approval in Congress as well.
The Palestinians would very correctly reject such a deal. It clearly promises a renewal of Oslo, allowing Israel to escape any serious pressure for at least several years to come, with plenty of time for political realities, whether between Israel and the Palestinians or simply significant advancement of the already considerable regional turmoil, to give Israel what it needs to further delay the implementation of further phases. The lives of Palestinians in the West Bank would get even worse, as their cantons would “enjoy” the same independence Gaza currently does. We’ve seen how that goes.
If Caspit is correct, the fact that Abbas renewed his commitment to the U.S.-sponsored peace process on Wednesday is a chilling development. It certainly fits well with Caspit’s narrative. A weak and desperate PA acquiescing to such an awful deal makes some sense. Abbas would know as well as Bibi and Obama that this was the best deal he could possibly get in this process and from this Israeli government. The U.S.’ pledge for “increased involvement” is likely a way to push Bibi, who would still be reluctant to take this deal despite its obvious gains for and bias toward Israel, to accept the deal and to ensure that Abbas also knows that this is the best the U.S. is going to offer him.
Now, while I feel pretty certain that Caspit is right that this is what the Israeli right believes is happening, whether it really is coming about is another matter. He is correct in saying that it is unlikely Bibi would agree to a deal that was significantly better than this one, but that doesn’t mean the Palestinians would take it. There can be no doubt that such a deal would never come close to passing a Palestinian referendum, and, while one might think that this would mean Bibi would accept it easily, he still would be very reluctant to sign off on it, as it would cost him a lot of his political support at home and financial support abroad. The fact that such a peace wouldn’t even materialize would also mean he wouldn’t recoup those losses from more centrist quarters.
So, while it is far from certain that Caspit’s scenario is correct, it is also very possible that it is. It is certain that many in the Israeli right believe it. And it is even more certain that if the United States is pushing such a deal, it would be a disaster. A peace proposal accepted by Abbas and Bibi but rejected overwhelmingly by the Palestinians public would lock the current system in for the foreseeable future.