By Colin Rubenstein
It is becoming conventional wisdom in much of the media that the new Netanyahu Government in Israel is likely to be headed for a major confrontation with the Obama Administration in Washington. The argument typically made is that while Obama is going to push hard for Israeli-Palestinian progress, the supposedly “hard-line” Netanyahu Government does not even support a “two-state” resolution to the conflict. Recent statements by controversial new Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are also often adduced as supporting evidence.
However, while some tension can be expected, the differences being claimed are exaggerated, while this whole argument ignores the realities of the wider political situation which makes the disagreements alleged almost irrelevant.
It is true Lieberman said Israel no longer supports the Annapolis Declaration. And it is true Netanyahu has not explicitly endorsed a two-state resolution in so many words.
But what this misses is that both of them have explicitly endorsed the Roadmap peace plan, and the Roadmap clearly states that the goal is two states.
Annapolis was, in fact, an attempt to short-circuit the Roadmap and jump to the third stage, a final agreement on two states, without going through the previous two stages it calls for. It was only ever designed to offer a “shelf agreement”, an outline of a final deal that, it was acknowledged, could not now be implemented. The hope was this would strengthen the hands of Palestinian advocates of compromise, and hasten the day when a two state resolution could be implemented. However, this effort did not succeed, despite a generous offer from the Olmert Government meeting all legitimate Palestinian demands – as explained by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (see p. 6).
There are lessons from Olmert’s experience for both the new Israeli government and the US administration. Even if Netanyahu and Lieberman were to follow the last three Israeli prime ministers and state repeatedly that they seek to establish a Palestinian state, there still would be no chance of a two-state resolution eventuating in the next few years. Hamas controls Gaza and remains utterly rejectionist, while PA President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak to enforce a peace deal even in the West Bank (for more on this see Khaled Abu Toameh, p. 22) and baulks at Netanyahu’s critical requirement to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The goal of both the US and Israeli governments must therefore be to create the conditions where credible and lasting peace can occur – and attempt to manage the conflict until then.
So why does Netanyahu not say that he supports a Palestinian state (though he is also careful never to rule one out)?
The new prime minister says a review of Israeli policy is still underway, but adds that, “We have no intention of ruling over the Palestinians. We want for them to rule themselves, except for those powers that could threaten our security and our existence…” In other words, he appears to be concerned that if he concedes a priori Palestinian statehood, he will be pushed to drop various conditions – such as limitations on their military, or prohibitions on military alliances with enemy states like Iran – that would be necessary, hopefully temporarily, for Israeli security. Moreover, he probably wants to leave open a possibility that is increasingly being discussed by many serious analysts in Israel – if the Palestinians are currently incapable of credibly promising and enforcing a peace deal, then the Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan, will have to play a transitional role in facilitating governance for Palestinians.
While Netanyahu’s stated proposal to pursue “economic peace” has been widely misrepresented as concentrating solely on economic benefits for the Palestinians, Netanyahu has stated repeatedly that he views such efforts as running parallel with political negotiations. Quartet envoy Tony Blair says he believes Netanyahu is trying “to build the [Palestinian] state from the bottom up. I understand and buy into that.”
President Obama has reportedly said he wishes to begin renewing peace progress by asking for a series of “concrete steps” as reciprocal “confidence-building measures”. This is potentially fully congruent with Netanyahu’s approach – especially in terms of his concentration on “reciprocity” and his proposal to take steps such as lifting roadblocks and improving West Bank freedom of movement to better the economic situation.
In addition, as Yossi Klein Halevi points out (see p. 21), Israeli-American cooperation on Iran will be a key to future progress. Iran is determined to fund and arm rejectionist and terrorist factions to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alive as the key to its bid for leadership of the Arab world. If Teheran cannot be cajoled, sanctioned or coerced into ceasing to do so – and stopped from building nuclear weapons – peace will be all but unachievable.
One positive sign for a cooperative relationship between Jerusalem and Washington has been the US stance on Durban II. President Obama put the case against the UN’s distorted anti-racism conference well when he stated, “We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all of the language from 2001[from the first Durban conference], that’s not something we can sign up for.” Sadly, this is exactly what happened – all the language singling out Israel as the only state named as guilty of racism was re-affirmed in the new conference’s outcome document.
Netanyahu has since thanked the Obama Administration for its “clear and unequivocal moral stance” along with other Durban II boycotters including the principled stands of Australia and New Zealand (whose government deserves particular praise for acting despite attacks from the opposition Labour party and Greens.)
Hopefully, the shared values, realism and cooperation exhibited in the face of the unfortunate and counter-productive distortion of human rights at Durban II can extend to the much more important and complex goal of bringing genuine Middle East peace closer.