The first thing to remember is that, sadly, none of this probably matters anymore.
Israel cannot be dissuaded from the course that it has quietly, at times even subconsciously pursued for 40 years. While it talked peace and at times honestly pursued peace, it has also continued to build settlements with the ultimate goal of swallowing all of the West Bank into its borders regardless of the consequences. Although millions of Israelis understand that those consequences might very well include the loss of Israel itself, there is no sign that the Israelis as a people can bring themselves to alter course.
The consensus necessary for peace is also missing among the Palestinians. For decades, they have clung to their own false dream of Israel’s abolition, and to the idea that such a feat could be accomplished through violence. It was blind, romantic foolishness, and they have reaped a bitter harvest for it. Today, after years of confrontation with a far superior military, many Palestinians have finally come to accept how foolish that dream really was. But a sizable Palestinian minority clings to that foolishness still, and a sizable minority is all that is needed to make peace is impossible.
In fact, looking back, the Middle East situation looks more and more like a cosmic case of very bad timing. In the years when Israel might still have been convinced to give up its dream and trade land for peace, the Palestinians were too blinded by their sense of victimhood and thirst for revenge to accept. Now that situation is reversed. With “Eretz Israel” seemingly almost within their grasp, it is Israel that is befuddled by its dreams, and even if the Palestinians were to somehow reach consensus among themselves, I do not believe they would find a willing partner. The moment, if it ever existed, has been lost.
Now, maybe I’m wrong about all that. Maybe years of watching American presidents and Israeli prime ministers and Palestinian leaders pretend to negotiate with no real intention of compromise have fed a misplaced cynicism and fatalism on my part. So let’s look at the situation as if that were the case and that hope of a two-state solution remains alive.
Most of the attention created by Obama’s speech yesterday has focused on his statement that “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” Mitt Romney immediately claimed that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus,” while Danny Danon, a leader of Israel’s Likud Party, responded by saying that “Barack Hussein Obama adopted the staged plan for Israel’s destruction of Yasser Arafat.”
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visits Washington today, released a statement explaining that on his arrival, Netanyahu “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004.”
He expects it.
It’s rather a remarkable thing. Major leaders in Israel, a nation entirely reliant on the United States economically, militarily and diplomatically, feel free to insult the American president and publicly dictate to him what they expect him to say. “Chutzpah” doesn’t begin to describe it. They play a dangerous game.
Obama’s statement regarding the 1967 borders is in fact merely a restatement of longstanding American policy. Again, he proposed the ‘67 boundaries as a starting point, not as a final imposed settlement, “with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” That is precisely the solution that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin publicly agreed to in 1993, and that Arafat initially accepted but then rejected. (Two years later, remember, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist as retribution for agreeing to any surrender of territory. That assassin is still hailed as a hero today by some fringe groups in Israel.)
Obama’s formulation is also a restatement of the principles of UN Resolution 242, drafted and agreed to by a unanimous vote of the Security Council in 1967 and also agreed to by Israel and almost every nation outside the Arab world. That resolution, which called for the return of captured territories to Arab if not Palestinian hands, has remained the foundation of negotiated peace cited by every American administration, Republican or Democrat, since then.
The Israeli government’s effort to focus attention on that particular point can be read only as an attempt to sidetrack the discussion and prevent Obama from pressing a deal on the basis of territory for peace.
In his speech yesterday, President Obama made it very clear that the violent approach of Hamas is unacceptable. “Palestinian leaders,” he warned, “will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection.” In addition, he made it clear that “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.” He reiterated that “our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable,” and he made it clear to the unhappy Palestinians that the United States will block any effort to create a Palestinian state unilaterally, without Israeli agreement.
However, the most important paragraph in Obama’s statement was not his reiteration of the 1967 boundaries as the starting point of negotiations, but his blunt assessment of the predicament in which Israel now finds itself:
“The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.”
In those staccato one-sentence bursts, Obama sketched out the existential crisis that confronts Israel and threatens its future:
– A growing number of Palestinians live within the West Bank, so many as to outnumber Israelis should any effort be made to annex that territory. The demographic realities are such that Israel requires a two-state solution if it is to survive as a Jewish, democratic state. It is more important to Israel’s survival than it is the survival of the Palestinians.
– Technology, not just in the form of nuclear weapons but also increasingly long-range missiles and other weapons, make it increasingly difficult for Israel to defend itself regardless of where its borders are drawn. The threat to its existence is no longer tanks or troops that can be halted at a boundary; a border is meaningless against weapons that recognize no borders.
– As Arab dictators topple, Israel’s ability to reach and sustain long-term “understandings” with surrounding countries disappear. Hosni Mubarak is gone; Bashar al-Assad barely clings to power in Syria; the military has ceded control of Turkey’s foreign policy to its democratically elected government. The stability that Israel once could count upon among its neighbors no longer exists, and if democracies do take root, those popularly elected governments will by necessity reflect the popular will in their policies toward Israel. That does not bode well longterm.
– In fact, Israel is becoming more and more isolated not just in the Middle East, but around the globe. Its support in Europe, Turkey and elsewhere is evaporating, and increasingly, the United States is its only friend. In an increasingly connected world where relationships are crucial, that too does not bode well. In addition, as our status as the world’s sole superpower erodes and our power to dictate international outcomes declines, our ability to protect Israel declines as well. Finally, the willingness of the current Israeli leadership to play an active role in American partisan politics is extremely short-sighted and arrogant. If pressed too far, it threatens the longstanding bipartisan consensus on which Israel’s existence depends.
For many Americans, such conclusions may seem harsh, and are often dismissed here as motivated by anti-Israeli or even anti-Semitic sentiment. But the truth is, none of those arguments are new to the Israelis themselves. They are a standard part of Israel’s internal debate, and are expressed daily.
In fact, Tzipi Livni, the head of the Israeli opposition, lauded Obama’s speech, saying “An American president that supports the two-state vision is representing Israeli interests and is not anti-Israel.” She also harshly criticized Netanyahu’s rhetoric.
“Netanyahu spoke about consensus, and if there is a consensus in Israel, it’s the relationship with the U.S. is essential to Israel, and a prime minister that harms the relationship with the U.S. over something unsubstantial is harming Israel’s security and deterrence,” Livni warned.
Aluf Benn, writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, also embraced Obama’s pro-Israeli stance:
“His approach to Israel was empathetic, not only with his reassurance of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security but also with his attempt “to save Israel from itself.” Obama warned us that if we perpetuated the occupation, we shall crash due to our demographic inferiority, new military technology, and most importantly, due to the anger of the masses who are slowly gaining power in the surrounding countries. In order to retain the vision of a Jewish and democratic state, Israel must end the occupation and withdraw from the West Bank.”
Personally, while I would very much like to see the Palestinians settled into a homeland and freed from humiliation and occupation, my greater concern is and always has been for Israel. However, friendship and support do not mean sitting silently watching while a partner slides toward self-destruction, as Israel is doing in trying to reclaim the biblical lands that some call Judea and Samaria.
Again, millions of Israelis share that same fear. But millions of others do not. Many, in fact, take solace and even encouragement in the belief that that they are the Chosen People and that God has promised Judea and Samaria to them and will protect them. Here at home, many Americans base their own support for Israel’s expansion on that same belief, even if it comes out of a different religious tradition.
Maybe they’re right. However, the belief that fallible humans can accurately interpret and rely upon God’s will has been the foundation of many a large tragedy. Even if you accept the biblical perspective as reality, that same Bible reminds us of repeated instances in which that same G-d has turned an angry face toward an Israel that He considered unjust and undeserving, condemning the nation to destruction and its people to exile. Even faith offers no guarantees against bad decisions and foolish dreams.
– Jay Bookman