Making Bibi Sing

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April 23, 2010

During the first year of Barack Obama’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s relationship, little has changed.

Obama has reoriented America’s relationship with Israel, back towards a more pragmatic one, echoing the years prior to the Clinton Administration. But these are not those days. A real change in the Mideast, which the President has clearly designated as a strategic American interest, is much more difficult to come by today.

Much has been said about whether or not the Obama Administration is serious about its Middle East peace program. We have now come to the pointwhere that sincerity will be put to the test.

Netanyahu has finally given his response to Obama on the latter’s demands. It is about as much as could possibly have been hoped for. Bibi has given in on most of what Obama wanted: a prisoner release, agreement to talk about all issues in indirect talks, further removal of roadblocks and checkpoints, and the transfer of more authority from occupying Israeli forces to the Palestinian Authority.

As expected, Israel’s Prime Minister refused to freeze building in Jerusalem. However, the word seems to be that he will refrain from building in the Arab areas, and hold off on house demolitions as well. This falls far short of Obama’s demand, but it seems Washington, knowing Bibi would lose a substantial part of his coalition if he agreed to a freeze, is willing to accept this compromise.

All of this will lead, it is hoped, to an announcement that proximity talks will begin. These indirect talks seem a small victory for so much effort, but the American theory is that they can lead to more serious, direct negotiations.

That’s where the real test comes in. Netanyahu has even said that he’d be amenable to a Palestinian state with “temporary borders,” such as that which is envisioned in the Roadmap for Peace. The Palestinians, quite correctly, smell a trap.

The problem with such “temporary” measures from Israel is that they almost always become permanent. For decades, Israel contended that its settlement construction was not determining the status of the Occupied Territories because settlements could always be dismantled. Indeed, they were taken down in Sinai and Gaza. But many also became irreversible facts on the ground, in the West Bank.

Similarly, the security barrier was not supposed to worry the Palestinians because it would be taken down in the event of peace. Yet the IDF won’t alter its route when it is ordered to by Israeli courts, despite the distinction between settlements on the western and eastern sides of the barrier.

Jerusalem was supposed to be a final status issue. Palestinians were not supposed to worry about fiery rhetoric about its being the “eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people.” Now, it is a major fight to get Israel to agree to talk about it at all, and considered a near impossibility for it to refrain from altering the status quo in the city.

So it’s easy to understand why the Palestinians might be leery of a proposal for temporary borders. Presumably, those borders would not include the settlements, or any of the territory within the municipal boundaries of those settlements. That leaves less than 60% of the West Bank, parceled into discontiguous fragments by Israel’s presence. It would also not include the Jordan Valley, cutting down Palestinian territory down even further, sealing off the provisional state almost entirely within Israeli control.

If that were nothing more than a stage to get to full independence with more credible borders, it would be a great opportunity for the PA build the institutions and confidence in the nascent Palestinian state. But few Palestinians accept that temporary borders will actually be temporary.

That’s where the United States will have to come in. There will have to be a firm deadline for permanent talks to resolve the outstanding issues, one that the Obama Administration will live to see. That’s a hell of a gamble, giving less than a three years to settle this vexing conflict.

It’s particularly worrisome given the other complications. Powerful Democrat Chuck Schumer came out with the most serious opposition yet to the President’s Middle East policy. There is little doubt that Schumer, who is the lead figure in fundraising for the Democrats, is doing this at the behest of AIPAC, in order to pave the way for Democrats running for Congress in November to distance themselves from Obama’s Mideast policy.

The split between Hamas and Fatah remains, as does the clear determination by Hamas to hold on to its power, no matter the cost to the Palestinian cause. Of course, there is also the rightist politics of the current Israeli government, elements of which will certainly do anything to scuttle any move toward a Palestinian state.

These factors all combine to increase pessimism toward the possibility of real progress for Obama’s policy. No less a figure than Aaron David Miller, whose career in Middle East diplomacy spanned the years from Carter to George W. Bush, believes the entire issue of a peace process needs to be re-thought.

He’s right. Netanyahu’s offer is a continuation of the Oslo process: lots of process, very little peace. Above all else, Obama must use America’s influence to ensure that any process is moving towards something tangible and identifiable.

In order to do that, he must use the tools at hand—the Arab Peace Initiative and the Clinton Parameters. These are not to be imposed, but must serve as the basis for negotiations. The US must sit the Israelis and Palestinians down, give them these two pieces as a framework, and tell them to get started on negotiations.

If the US can do that while at the same time helping the Fayyad government to build its institutions, and work with both sides to ensure as much Israeli security as possible, there can be progress. However, there’s one more gorilla in the room.

That is Iran. For Israelis (and this is a sharp break from the past), the biggest fear of a Palestinian state is rooted in Tehran. They see Iranian influence growing in Hezbollah and Hamas; in other words, in Lebanon and Gaza, the two places from which Israel most recently withdrew. That is the threat that must be confronted.

The question of Iran, which has been terribly distorted for political ends by both the Israeli right and Iran’s equally reactionary President, is not an easy one. It may be inevitable that Iran will have nuclear capabilities, and a military strike is acknowledged to have far more potential for harm than good. Finding a way to ensure that Iran can have civilian nuclear capability, yet cannot develop a weapon, is much more plausible, and one that China, a country that Iran depends on economically, and Russia can support.

Settling the Iran issue might help allay some Israeli fears. However, it is tough to imagine that the Palestinians will accept more temporary arrangements with Israel. “Temporary” is illusory, and any guarantees Obama can give can only last as long as his administration anyway, even if the President can guarantee temporary status for borders.

This option should be foregone in favor of Prime Minister Fayyad continuing his state-building, and the US continuing to increase the pressure to settle the outstanding issues by negotiations. One hopes, if the US does accept the temporary borders idea, that Salam Fayyad makes the best of it rather than abandoning his current track. I expect he would.

As much as the parties cannot rush blindly through this process, neither can the US allow a return to an endless process which leads to nowhere. Negotiations must cut to the heart of the matter. Temporary measures will no longer suffice.

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