America as Spectator

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November 12, 2009

In a recent column, I explained why the model of “partners for peace” that has dominated the thinking of Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders for sixteen years is a flawed notion. Now, with the possibility of the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority becoming stronger and Salam Fayyad’s proposal for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, we may be entering a new chapter soon.

This isn’t something new. Under Yasir Arafat, the PLO also declared an independent state once, and you can see how much of a state that brought about. Opposition from the US and EU likely means that declaration of statehood won’t win sufficient recognition. But it does show that the old model of the PA engaging in endless and fruitless negotiations with Israel is on its way out.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who never misses an opportunity to engage in mindless tough talk, was quick to respond by threatening unilateral action on Israel’s own side. Israel would, in the face of a unilateral declaration by the Palestinians of statehood, annex settlements on the West Bank. But Lieberman talks a great deal for a man with virtually no input into Israeli decisions, despite his job title.

There have been threats and clear signals, from Israel and the international community, against this Palestinian action. Usually, there is some statement to the effect that “unilateral moves” would be counter-productive for peace. It’s that very rhetoric which makes last week’s announcement of the construction of 900 new housing units in the settlement of Gilo all the more galling and provocative.

The new construction in Gilo needs to be understood. A few points, then.

It is being contended by some that this is construction over which the Prime Minister has no control, that it is private construction being authorized by the municipal planning committee. This is one of those things that is technically true, but practically misleading. In fact, the Prime Minister has frequently stepped in on such matters. What he does is request that the item be removed from the agenda and delayed to a later date. Bibi could have done that here, and did not.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni chimed in and made the statement that there is a national consensus on building in Gilo. She’s not wrong. Gilo is not viewed by most Israelis as a settlement, but as a Jerusalem neighborhood. This is true even for many left-leaning and seriously two-state Israelis. Gilo is immediately accessible from most of Jerusalem…it just feels like part of the city.

This is what makes it such a tempting front for Netanyahu. Bibi is throwing down another gauntlet in front of Barack Obama. He is saying, in effect, “I can do what I want and all you can do is say you don’t like it.”

Obama needs to prove Bibi wrong this time. Mere words are not sufficient. Bibi must be made to realize that there are consequences for such actions, or the American ability to broker any kind of Mideast deal will be permanently compromised. And this is a tough front on which to do it.

Bibi took a provocative step on Jerusalem, part of the fulfillment of his promise that he will retain control over all of Jerusalem, and damn what that does to prospects of a two-state solution. The overwhelming majority of Israelis will stand behind him on this, and it’s a deal-breaker for the Palestinians, whether or not there are any talks.

It also serves to underline the American opposition to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians, across the political spectrum, will see this as a double standard; the US opposes a unilateral move by the Palestinians born out of desperation, while they do nothing to stop a unilateral Israeli move to change the facts on the ground.

Make no mistake, expanding Gilo is a unilateral move, and one with far more real world impact than a declaration of Palestinian statehood. The planned new units are not in the middle of tiwn, but on its southern edge. It will expand closer to a nearby Palestinian village. I was just standing near the site of that expansion—it will clearly threaten the village of Wallajeh. A full reading of the potential damage this building can wreak can be found here in a piece from the Peace Now website, by Danny Seidemann and Lara Friedman.

What can Obama do here? No one ever questions the President’s skills as an orator, but he is now confronted with a situation where mere words are not going to cut it. This is a serious affront, coming as it does on the heels of Bibi’s meeting with Obama at the White House.

The point Obama needs to make is that however Israelis view Gilo, Jerusalem is a final status issue and Israel must not create facts on the ground to change its condition before there is an agreement. But how does he stop it?

Some will, and have already said that Obama should threaten military aid to Israel. This would be politically suicidal, but also, given the current state of affairs with Iran, the recent shipments to Hezbollah and the increasing capabilities of Hamas in Gaza, it would be callous, unethical and foolhardy to take any step that would weaken Israel militarily. In any case, it couldn’t be done—such a threat would immediately be negated by an overwhelming majority in Congress and would even be opposed by elements within the executive branch.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives. One could clearly be a behind the scenes threat to either support or at least become neutral on the issue of a Palestinian declaration of statehood. Another option, (and this is one that was employed by President George W. Bush), is to threaten loan guarantees. Or, alternatively, there could be increased agitation at the UN, or decreased protection for Israel there.

There are other options, involving various business arrangements that are eased by the government between American and Israeli companies. A creative president can find a way to pressure Israel without jeopardizing Israel’s security. With a more reasonable Prime Minister than Bibi, American displeasure at certain activities can be effective. In this case, as it was in Bibi’s first term with Bill Clinton in the White House, more direct action will be necessary.

If Obama takes such action, he is likely to be opening a new chapter in both American-Israeli relations and American involvement in the peace process. But if he does not, Obama will be witness to the opening of a new chapter anyway. That chapter will see increased Israeli unilateralism, along with as much unilateralism of their own that the Palestinians can muster (not much). It will see estrangement and the death of the two-state solution.

The next phase of the peace process is about to begin. The question before President Obama is how much of a hand he wants to have in writing it. If he wants to be the lead author, he needs to start now, in Gilo.

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