By Daniel Luban
Israel has a history of tactical victories that ultimately proved to be strategic defeats. The classic example is the sweeping victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, a triumph that set the stage for four decades of occupation and currently threatens Israel’s identity as a Jewish democratic state. But other examples abound; whether in Lebanon in the 1980s or Gaza this past winter, the undeniable tactical prowess of the Israeli military has often not been matched by a similar degree of strategic acumen or political foresight on the part of its leaders.
I was reminded of this history by Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent rejection of the Obama administration’s request to halt settlement construction in East Jerusalem, with the Israeli prime minister declaring that Israeli sovereignty over a “united Jerusalem…cannot be challenged.” Netanyahu’s proclamation was the latest salvo in what has become an outright clash with Obama on the settlement issue. The Israeli government has joined this diplomatic battle with gusto, refusing to make any real concessions while sharply escalating its rhetorical attacks on the Obama administration in the press. But the Netanyahu government’s behavior during the settlements battle seems to reflect — albeit in a political rather than a military context — this pattern of short-term tactical maximalism at the expense of long-term strategic vision. For although the rather impressive torrent of evasions, euphemisms, distortions, and slanders being produced by Netanyahu and his supporters may prove immediately useful in avoiding action on the settlements, in the process they are throwing into question Israel’s most valuable strategic asset — the support it enjoys from the U.S. and the American Jewish community. Even if Netanyahu emerges victorious in the settlements battle, he will likely be setting his country up for yet another Pyrrhic victory.
Netanyahu’s reiteration of his views about a “united Jerusalem” was yet another sign, if any more were needed, that his much-ballyhooed acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state last month was nothing more than a ploy designed to alleviate American pressure. Even the feeble excuse trotted out to avoid freezing settlements in much of the West Bank — the idea that “everyone knows” that close-in settlements will remain under Israeli control in a final-status agreement — does not apply here. Any realistic two-state solution requires East Jerusalem to serve as the Palestinian capital. Netanyahu’s insistence on an undivided Jerusalem is therefore a rejection of the two-state principle, plain and simple, and a provocation that will be difficult for Obama to ignore. But contrary to the laughable spin being offered by the likes of Elliott Abrams, the administration has shown no inclination to back down on settlements, suggesting that the current diplomatic spat is likely to reach a head in the near future.
If Israel were any other American client state, Obama would have a fairly easy time getting his way. After all, the U.S. currently provides Israel with billions of dollars in aid, vast quantities of military equipment, and unstinting diplomatic support at the U.N. If Obama could credibly threaten to withhold this support, he would undoubtedly find Netanyahu quite willing to drop his protests about the impossibility of halting “natural growth,” and the Israeli government would hasten to ensure that not so much as a mouse crossed the Green Line into the occupied territories.
So why doesn’t Obama do so? The answer, of course, is the fear of a domestic political backlash. This fear is due both, in an immediate sense, to the power of right-wing groups like AIPAC on Capitol Hill, and, in a deeper sense, to the perceived (albeit overstated) support for these groups among the American Jewish community as a whole. The Israelis know all this, and the Americans know they know. Hence Israel is able to flout the wishes of its patron to a degree that would be unthinkable for an average client.
But it would be a mistake for Netanyahu to assume that this American support is either immutable or inevitable. Indeed, polls show that support for Israel in the U.S. has already declined precipitously in recent months, and settlements in particular are a sore point among American Jews. The 2008 presidential election itself was a notable sign of change, as American Jews voted in overwhelming numbers for Obama in the face of dire warnings from American and Israeli hawks that the candidate harbored Palestinian sympathies and was “bad for Israel”. And while the traditionally prominent institutions of the Jewish community remain in the hands of aging hardliners — Abe Foxman of the ADL, Marty Peretz of The New Republic, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and so on — the younger generation, jaded by Iraq and repulsed by Gaza, has begun to maintain a critical distance from Israeli policies.
To be sure, this shift in attitudes is far from complete. It is possible that what is often referred to in Washington as the “status quo lobby” retains enough power to force Obama to back down on the settlements issue. This outcome would, of course, be disastrous for the U.S., squandering Obama’s credibility in the Middle East at a time when he needs it most. But it would quite possibly prove to be even more disastrous for Israel.
Not just because, as former prime minister Ehud Olmert warned, failure to halt the settlements and achieve a two-state solution will force Israel to choose between binational democracy (and with it the end of political Zionism), ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. More than that, the ugliness of the settlements battle is driving the wedge in deeper between Israel and its traditional supporters in the U.S.
These erstwhile supporters marvel at the transparent bad faith involved when Israel offers financial incentives to Jews from around the world to move into the occupied territories, then chalks the increase up to “natural growth” of existing communities. They are repulsed at the cynical exploitation of past Jewish suffering when Netanyahu alleges that Obama wants to make the West Bank “Judenrein” — somehow the neoconservatives who constantly wail about “moral equivalence” see nothing wrong with this casual equation of an American president with the Nazis — or when The Israel Project advises its supporters to deflect questions about settlements by flinging around accusations of “ethnic cleansing”. And they can only shake their heads in amazement at the realization that, after over forty years of generous and unstinting support for Israel, the U.S. cannot seem to get its client to do a single rather minor thing in return. It is surely a sign of the times when even The New York Times — traditionally the bastion of status-quo mainstream Jewish thinking on Israel-Palestine — feels compelled to note the “deep skepticism about [Netanyahu’s] sincerity” in the U.S.
While I have little interest in advising Netanyahu how best to evade a peace settlement with the Palestinians, I cannot help but think that his intransigence will prove to be self-defeating even on its own terms, and that the prime minister would well-advised to take a more accommodating tack. Otherwise, within a few years the U.S. may come to feel that endless unrequited support for Israel serves neither its interests nor its values, and Israel may come to regret squandering its most valuable strategic asset for the sake of the settlements. Intolerable as American pressure might seem, Netanyahu will likely discover that it is far better than American indifference.
[Cross-posted at The Faster Times.]