Washington All of a sudden, many of the pieces have fallen into place that might allow meaningful negotiations to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Hamas is quiescent — for now. Most West Bank Palestinians are tired of the conflict and simply want a settlement that would offer the chance for peace and prosperity. And Iran is the new bogeyman for much of the Arab world, taking a bit of pressure off Israel. But one large obstacle still stands in the way: Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minster.
Netanyahu and President Obama have been feuding since Netanyahu took office March 31 over Obama’s demand that Israel freeze West Bank settlements.
Finally, under immense pressure from Washington, Netanyahu offered a bone. In June he said he would be willing “to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.” Over a two-decade political career, he had never said that before. But when Netanyahu finally uttered the words, the offer was larded with so many preconditions that it was essentially worthless.
Most galling was his demand that the Palestinians stand up right now and recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Without that, he said, “It will not be possible to advance the diplomatic process and reach a peace settlement.” Netanyahu posed that demand precisely because he knew that Palestinian leaders could not possibly accept it. What better way to stall a process he opposes?
Of course, Israel is and will remain a Jewish state, and the Palestinians realize that. But Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, faces the same challenge Netanyahu does in Israel: reconciling the demands of fractious constituencies. Among Abbas’ constituents are extremists who demand full right of return for the Palestinian diaspora to their former homes in the West Bank, Gaza — and Israel. All those returning Palestinians could easily change the character of Israel. Jews might no longer be in the majority.
That will never happen. Israel would not allow it. Washington opposes it. And Abbas knows full well that it’s a non-starter. But to stand up now and announce that he recognizes Israel as a Jewish state is to tell all those extremists, including numerous Arab leaders, that their views don’t matter. That would enrage them. Is that going to help the “peace process?”
Knock down that idea in the negotiations, not in the newspapers. Perhaps Abbas should demand that Netanyahu recognize the Palestinians’ historical right to East Jerusalem. Palestinians certainly hold that as a verity.
For now, though, Abbas has been willing to say only that he rejects Netanyahu’s request, adding: “It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic; it is none of my business.”
While tossing that stink bomb onto the negotiating table, Netanyahu is also insulting White House officials — simply because they do not hold his right-wing views. In internal office discussions, he called Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, and David Axelrod, a senior adviser, “self-hating Jews,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
And when the White House privately raised an objection to new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem last week, Netanyahu turned it into a public furor by complaining that Washington was trying to prevent Israelis from living wherever they wanted in their capital.
Clearly this is a man who believes that standing up to Obama is politically useful at home. Obama, unlike presidents Bush and Clinton, is not regarded as a particular friend of Israel. Since taking office, he has visited 15 states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He gave an important speech in Cairo. But he has not set foot in Israel — a fact that is the subject of frequent negative comment in Israeli newspapers and on TV. At the same time, his effort to engage Iran unnerves Israelis; many of them want to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities
Some Israelis see Obama’s push to stop settlements as a cynical step whose real intent is to placate America’s allies in the Arab world — to show that, unlike Bush, he can be tough on Israel.
As long as Israelis remain ambivalent about Obama, they are not likely to side with him in his rhetorical fight with Netanyahu. That’s why there isn’t a outcry in Israel right now about settlements, even from the left. For Obama’s approach to be effective, he has to befriend the Israeli people, as Bush and Clinton did. The longer Obama goes without visiting Israel, the more politically invincible Netanyahu will be in his feud with Washington.