Don’t be fooled by the soothing words recently expressed by our ambassador to the United States, or by the appearance of tranquility that seemingly prevails with respect to US-Israel relations. The settlement freeze may have averted an ugly confrontation with the Obama administration, but the underlying tensions remain and will inevitably resurface.
The positive by-product of the imbroglio is that the Obama administration probably now appreciates that its initial efforts to publicly humiliate and impose harsh demands on Israel while simultaneously cozying up to the Palestinians were counterproductive and effectively undermined prospects for meaningful negotiations. Indeed, far from undermining Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, its diktats encouraged Israelis to rally behind him. The administration must also have been dismayed at the arrogant response of the Palestinians and the Arab world to its entreaties to at least make some symbolic gesture acknowledging the 10-month settlement freeze imposed by the government.
The current hiatus, during which Israel has been placed on the back burner, is due to the fact that President Barack Obama has had his hands full with other crises. Wrangling over health-care reform, dilemmas over how to handle Afghanistan and critiques about his disastrous policy of engaging with tyrants have dramatically eroded his standing even with liberal supporters. This applies especially to the degrading Iranian responses to the administration’s groveling efforts to appease them.
INDEED, OBAMA’S recent pronouncements indicate that he may have internalized some of these issues and actually taken a few steps back. His Nobel Prize acceptance speech endorsing the need to combat evil and the obligation to use force, as exemplified in the war against Nazism, was an effort to modify his emerging portrayal in the media as an impotent pacifist.
But regrettably, this does not appear to have improved the almost nonexistent chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu. Although Congress has affirmed its support for the Jewish state, the administration has in no way signaled any deviation from its initial determination to publicly downgrade the special relationship maintained by former administrations.
In fact, new pressures are looming. European hostility is exemplified by the new EU representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, who in her maiden speech bitterly criticized the “Israeli occupation,” described the temporary freeze as merely “the first step,” referred to east Jerusalem as occupied territory, called for a lifting of the blockade of Gaza and expressed renewed opposition to the security fence. Her speech contained no condemnations of Hamas or calls on the Palestinians to cease their incitement. The Europeans are clearly maneuvering to force Israel to return to 1967 borders and negotiate directly with Hamas.
Global pressure is now also mounting to implement the secret and unauthorized offers extended by former prime minister Ehud Olmert to the Palestinians in the dying days of his tenure, when he desperately sought to end his term with a dramatic breakthrough on the peace process. The deal, which PA President Mahmoud Abbas rejected, included ceding all territory gained in the Six Day War, with a few land swaps to retain the major settlement blocs. Olmert even offered to hand over control of the Temple Mount to an international body controlled by Arabs. The lame-duck prime minister initiated this without reference to his cabinet, the Knesset or any other group – and the Netanyahu government has from the outset been adamant that it considers itself in no way obligated to honor these extraordinary unauthorized initiatives.
CURRENTLY, ABBAS appears intent on doing nothing, relying on the international community to continue beating up Israel and extracting unilateral concessions. He even proclaimed that he would not resume negotiations until the international community affirmed that the Palestinian state would adhere to the 1967 borders. However, should he come to his senses and agree to renew discussions, he has repeatedly insisted that the opening benchmark of future negotiations must be based on the offers extended to him by Olmert, despite having previously rejected them. He also seems confident that in order to boost his standing against Hamas, the Americans would press Israel to make further concessions.
There is said to be an internal debate within the US administration whether or not to publicly announce a plan which would probably be similar to the European plan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already referred to an independent Palestinian state “based on 1967 lines and agreed swaps.” That would certainly result in a major confrontation with the Israeli government.
These pressures are likely to impact us simultaneously with new initiatives by our enemies, who will undoubtedly exploit the Goldstone report to further demonize and delegitimize us. The UN and other foes of Israel will soon be launching major campaigns calling on the International Criminal Court to charge Israel with crimes against humanity as well as intensifying efforts to indict individual political and military leaders for war crimes.
WE SHOULD have no illusions. The situation is grave. Tough days lie ahead, and we are probably more isolated today than at any time since the birth of the state. Netanyahu has offered the Palestinians an independent demilitarized state and a settlement freeze – far more than Yitzhak Rabin was willing to concede. Yet he is rebuffed by the Palestinians and accused of being intransigent by the global community, while the Americans, at best, sit on the sidelines. In fact, Obama went so far as to relate to the neighborhood of Gilo in Jewish Jerusalem as an area of contention, complaining that construction in the area “embitters the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous.”
We must prepare ourselves.
We should support Netanyahu’s efforts to broaden the government. A national unity government would send a powerful message to the Obama administration and the world at large that the government speaks on behalf of a united nation. The prime minister should also convene a global Jewish solidarity meeting to demonstrate that other than peripheral groups, the vast majority of Jews throughout the world continue supporting Israel.
More importantly, we must face the fact that despite Netanyahu’s astute diplomacy, the government lacks any strategic long-term policy, and is simply dousing fires as they ignite. We need to urgently formulate a global legal strategy on how to confront the Goldstone report, which our enemies are exploiting to transform us into a pariah state.
In addition, recognizing that prospects of establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state in the near future are very remote, our first priority must be to chart a detailed policy expanding Netanyahu’s plans for the economic development of the West Bank and making life more tolerable for Palestinians. This in the long run offers a hope of convincing them that only by rejecting violence and achieving a peace settlement will they and their children be able to lead productive and prosperous lives in their own state.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post