by Mitchell Plitnick
To paraphrase Genesis, “And the eyes of the public were opened, and they knew that Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the two-state solution was naked.” The question now is whether the Obama administration will allow Israel to sew some fig leaves together and return to the charade of negotiations that will not lead to a resolution.
According to early indications, the United States was not going to buy in to Netanyahu’s attempt to walk back the repudiation of the two-state solution that he made in the waning days of the Israeli elections. Since then, the White House has continued to fume while several Republican members of Congress have leapt to Netanyahu’s defense.
It is no secret that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are considering a menu of options to try to cajole Israel back into the two-state fold. These include either crafting or standing aside on someone else’s resolution in the UN Security Council, or perhaps presenting an American vision of what the final agreement ought to look like.
Any of the ideas the White House is considering would likely be, at the very least, a positive precedent in US-Israeli relations. Such a precedent would establish that Israel can directly contradict US policy, but the United States will respond to such actions as it would with any other country.
Still, in the face of Netanyahu’s self-absorbed hubris in tossing the two-state solution aside in order to win an election, something more than a simple tit-for-tat response is required from Washington. But at this late date, it is unlikely that the Obama administration can suddenly develop the successful strategy it has been unable to craft in its first six-plus years. The fact that Obama is waiting for Netanyahu to form his new government could indicate that he is still looking for a way back to the same old process of negotiations. But that’s hardly a credible strategy.
There is no indication in Washington that anyone has realized that the entire peace process was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, and that a new approach is needed. The United States, due to its own domestic constraints, cannot continue to play the role of broker. That, at least, seems to have dawned on some people here in DC.
But what continues to escape US policymakers is that fewer and fewer Israelis see a two-state solution that actually provides the Palestinians with a functional and independent state as a necessity. Many recognize the value in continuing talks, in order to stave off the sort of pressure that is looming right now in the United States and Europe. But the notion of true Palestinian independence is a different matter. For many Israelis, certainly most of those who voted for the right-wing parties that make up the new Knesset majority, a Palestinian state either means rocket attacks coming from both the West Bank and Gaza or a weak state dependent on Israel that could easily fall to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) or other aggressors who could attack Israelis on a larger scale than the current Palestinian groups can.
Under these circumstances, Israel is not going to come to an agreement with the Palestinians without a very good reason to do so. In this, as I have said many times, Israel is no different from any other country. Governments do not make concessions out of a sense of justice, or out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it because their interests dictate they do so.
If in the past many Israelis did not perceive that the creation of a Palestinian state as worth the risk, they have less reason to believe so now. Regional instability is growing, and Iran’s influence is spreading (and very likely to spread even further if a deal over the Iranian nuclear program is struck). As such, the so-called moderate Arab states—the Western term for those who partner with the United States—have more incentive than ever to find some way to work with Israel. That same instability also strengthens Netanyahu’s argument that Israel cannot take risks for peace at this time, however disingenuous that argument might be.
Thus, more than ever before, the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, whatever the form, will come if the United States recognizes that what is needed is not a broker but a prod. The process needs a party, whether the United States or someone else, capable and prepared to pressure both Israelis and Palestinians when they need either some cover to make concessions or a push to break their intransigence.
Negotiations to Nowhere
What we do not need is a return to negotiations to nowhere. Nothing will change if Netanyahu pulls one of the more centrist parties, such as Yesh Atid or Labor, into his coalition to give him a fig leaf and allow him to once again “embrace” the two-state solution while constantly frustrating the entire process. And if Obama is aiming to rekindle negotiations along the same lines that we have seen since 1993 with no results, the entire world, and surely the Israelis and Palestinians, are far better off if he simply drops the threats and lets Bibi go his merry way.
But if Obama is trying to lay the groundwork for something more serious, the time is most definitely now. Netanyahu has laid bare his opposition to the two-state solution. In so doing, he has alienated a great many pro-Israel liberals, Democrats, and Jews in the United States, as well as their counterparts in Europe. In two years, the United States will have a new president and it is overwhelmingly likely that she or he will be much less disposed to taking any serious action.
This means laying out a framework not only for a two-state solution but also for mechanisms to move the process forward. These can include a wide range of actions that remove some of the diplomatic shield that America has provided Israel for decades in the United Nations or steps to enforce international law regarding countries doing business in the Occupied Territories.
But there must be teeth. If Obama is not prepared to do some dental work, we’ll be stuck with more of the same pabulum of meaningless negotiations.