What Israelis Can Do

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February 12, 2010

When an American President fails to mention Israel in his State of the Union address, the silence speaks volumes. Here in Washington, most people involved in promoting Middle East peace took it as a sign that Barack Obama was de-prioritizing his commitment to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.

They were both right and wrong. It is obvious that Obama’s major opening gambit – the call for a full settlement freeze by Israel – backfired badly. The administration is clearly re-grouping, and the staggering weight of domestic issues, coupled with congressional elections in November that are likely to whittle away at the Democratic majority, is putting foreign policy in general and this conflict in particular on a back burner.

But that could well turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The latest tactic seems to be putting Special Envoy George Mitchell together with Quartet Representative Tony Blair, taking the US out of sole possession of the spotlight. This is unlikely to produce a breakthrough, but it could well mean some progress can be made before renewed American involvement.

Mitchell, both in his time in Northern Ireland and his previous stint in the Middle East during the Al-Aksa intifada, has shown that he is not inclined toward promoting negotiations for the sake of a process that leads nowhere. He will try to get something done. And, while Tony Blair has done a fine impression of the invisible man since taking over as the Quartet representative, Europe is a fast-growing center of concern for both Israel and the Palestinians. This could give added weight to Mitchell’s powers of persuasion.

In the meantime, if Obama ever intends to bring about a real change in this issue, his opportunities are far from done. His first year was characterized by a major gaffe, and yet in that time, momentum for relief in Gaza has grown considerably and the situation on the ground in the West Bank has also improved. While the Israeli body politic is still firmly entrenched in the rejectionist camp, there is a growing split in the public discourse there between those who now unabashedly aspire to keep the Occupied Territories and those who are ready to take concrete steps to give them up.

In the PA, while Mahmoud Abbas continues to dog paddle, trying to keep his head above water, Salam Fayyad has taken dramatic steps toward progress. His two-year plan for building the institutions of statehood has ruffled Israeli feathers, but even the hard-liners have a tough time arguing against the Palestinians building the apparatus that will enable them to credibly govern in the event of a peace agreement. And his dramatic gesture of attending the Herzliya security conference in Israel was under-appreciated, but sent a significant message to Israeli leaders that he is willing to take risks domestically to advance his agenda.

If there is to be an American-brokered peace agreement in the next few years (admittedly, an unlikely prospect, but not out of the question), much will depend on the Israeli people. As I noted in an earlier article, there is some possibility that a genuine, politically relevant peace movement is beginning to coalesce. And at that same security conference in Herzliya, Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, gave voice to the need for it.

Barak said, “If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic … If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.”

Barak, the man who delivered the crushing blow to the Israeli peace movement of the 1990s and is, in my view, the single most pernicious figure in Israeli politics, is not about to lead a peace movement. But Barak is nothing if not a consummate politician and his statement, among other things, reflects a growing concern in the Israeli center and left.

Israelis are coming to recognize that the occupation is poised to do a lot more damage to Israel than it ever has in the past. Particularly in Europe (which is where Israel does the largest share of its business), the continuing deprivation of Palestinians’ civil and human rights is turning people against the Jewish state. Israel’s explanations of security concerns are falling increasingly on deaf ears in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. And the increasing disenfranchisement of Israel’s Arab minority, coupled with the escalating actions against Arab residents of East Jerusalem, is undermining Israel’s claim to being the “only democracy in the Middle East” in European eyes.

Israelis are not blind to this or to the threat this represents. They are also not missing the fact that even in the United States, there is growing unease with Israel’s behavior and that the hard-line support for Israeli policies, once a broad consensus in the US, is now coming increasingly from the right as liberal support becomes much more conditional (universal consensus on Israel’s right to exist remains largely unscathed, at least for now).

The question is whether Israelis are going to continue to allow thugs like Avigdor Lieberman to be spokespeople for Israel. Are they going to continue to allow rejectionists and settlers disproportionate say over Israeli policies? Are they going to allow their government to continue to believe it can enact any foolish and unjust policy it wishes and address the fallout only with increased public relations campaigns?

Or are Israelis going to stand up and demand a leadership that recognizes that the current policies –the reality of them, not the perception – are the problem? Are they going to acknowledge that starving the people of Gaza in a failed attempt to topple Hamas is both ineffective and immoral? Are they going to acknowledge that they need a leadership that recognizes that holding millions of Palestinians without legal rights under military occupation for almost 43 years is immoral, unjust, and ultimately self-defeating?

If Israelis can put together a political voice that promotes these views and make it mainstream in the next few years, they will find American and European interlocutors who are ready and willing to ensure that those matters are addressed in ways that enhance, rather than diminish, Israeli security. In that event, there is an American President who would be willing to take political risks to support such an Israeli voice. He would do it because the payoff would be big and the risk much lower than it is now. And by that time, he may well have a strategy that can work, based on the lessons learned from his first-year failure and the massive mistakes made by the two men that preceded him.

These are formidable challenges. But if Israelis can shift their political stance toward one that is more reflective of majority Israeli (as well as global Jewish) views, the biggest step will have been taken. The Americans will have something to work with and European scorn will be replaced with support. If that Israeli shift doesn’t happen, chances are dim that even an ideal American strategy will be successful and Israel will be at serious risk of a sour relationship with most of Europe.

Much work remains to be done on the Palestinian side. Salam Fayyad’s state-building plan is very ambitious and needs a lot of support. The ongoing split between Fatah and Hamas needs to be addressed, and a Palestinian government that has enough popular support to execute and enforce an agreement with Israel must come into being.

But all of that is helped by an Israeli shift. No one party can bring peace by itself, but a lot of this is in the hands of the Israeli people today.

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