Israel contemplates Palestinian unilateralism
By Amotz Asa-El
“Facing Tomorrow,” a Jerusalem conference scheduled for June, could hardly be more aptly named. Convened by Israeli President Shimon Peres, the conclave of entrepreneurs, financiers, strategists, and academics will be joined by US President Barack Obama, whose speech at the event could possibly herald a historic Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough.
Obama’s speech is but one of several events scheduled for the upcoming months when assorted statesmen may reshape Middle Eastern history, a history which at this moment seems as unpredictable as it has been in centuries.
Preceding Obama’s June speech will be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the US Congress in late May, roughly a month after representatives of the Quartet, the forum comprising the US, Russia, the EU and the UN, meet in Berlin to discuss the Middle East. Hovering above all these is the September annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, during which a motion on Palestinian statehood within specific borders is expected to be tabled.
All the protagonists are currently responding to the dynamics created by the Palestinian gradual collection of international statements of recognition for Palestinian statehood. The steady drip of such declarations since last year from countries like Russia, Brazil, Chile and Argentina has caught Israeli diplomacy off guard. While Jerusalem waited in vain for a Palestinian response following Netanyahu’s public acceptance of the two-state principle in 2009, it turned out that the Palestinians had embarked on a global effort to create diplomatic facts. Their hope is to twist Israel’s arm and impose on it Palestinian statehood under terms that the Netanyahu Government, and indeed most Israelis, consider unacceptable.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) plans to ask the Security Council to recognise the State of Palestine within the 1967 armistice lines, apparently with minimal territorial swaps, and with east Jerusalem as its capital. If vetoed by the US, the PA’s automatic supporters in the General Assembly would table it there, peppered with anti-Israel sanctions. While the General Assembly’s resolutions, unlike the Security Council’s, are non-binding, Palestinian diplomats believe they will be able to deploy constitutional loopholes that will make this one binding. If they are successful at this, all Israeli presence beyond the ’67 lines will presumably be regarded as “invasion” of a sovereign neighbour, and potentially touch off an international campaign that will leave Israel isolated as never before.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak thinks all this adds up to a potential “diplomatic tsunami”. This is also what drove US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman John Kerry (D, Mass.) to urge Netanyahu, while in Jerusalem in late March, to preempt the Palestinian initiative with more territorial handovers.
Netanyahu has been under pressure from some of his aides to do as Barak suggests, and preempt the Palestinian initiative with a diplomatic plan of his own. If he has indeed been working on such a plan, the Prime Minister has been doing a good job keeping it secret. A dramatic speech that some of his aides had said would be delivered during March was never made. Instead, Netanyahu invited the media to join him on a visit to the Jordan Valley, where he declared that region strategically indispensable for Israel under any future agreement. Speculation consequently abounded that Netanyahu will offer the PA more land to the west of the Jordan Valley, in turn for a postponement of its initiative.
This is what Barak has been reportedly prodding Netanyahu to propose, including a division of Jerusalem, and a gradual removal of settlements beyond the West Bank separation barrier.
However, there are other voices in Netanyahu’s innermost circle. Barak’s counterweight within the government, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believes Mahmoud Abbas lacks both the power and the desire to deliver the kind of peace Israelis expect from a deal with the PA. A cable, sent by Foreign Ministry Director General Rafael Barak, ordered more than a dozen ambassadors to explain to the governments hosting them that the PA’s initiative means replacing negotiations with impositions; that it buries the principles of Resolutions 242 and 338; and that it might trigger equally unilateral Israeli action. What that action might be was not specified.
Within Netanyahu’s Likud party, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon says that prior to offering territorial concessions Netanyahu should demand Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a declaration that Palestinian statehood will end the conflict, and security arrangements between Israel and the PA.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been knocking on doors from Washington to Moscow in an effort to crack the front the Palestinians have been trying to cement. Netanyahu met in Berlin early in April with Chancellor Angela Merkel, shortly after his adviser Isaac Molcho met in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Both meetings were meant to prevent a unilateral initiative on the part of the Quartet, which Netanyahu believes might also come at the expense of negotiations.
This was also the backdrop for President Peres’ meeting in early April in the White House with President Obama, and then with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in New York.
The latter said plainly that the UN was “disturbed” by the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process, and warned that a lack of movement might result in unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. Obama, however, urged that “the winds of change blowing through the Arab world” make an Israeli-Palestinian deal both urgent and opportune.
In this he was parroting Peres, who has been saying since the beginning of the Arab upheaval that it creates a momentum which Israel should leverage. Peres, who has been envisioning the region’s reinvention for the past two decades, now says the common denominator among the region’s disparate revolts is a grassroots impatience with the existing order. In his view, the region’s current instability makes Arab-Israeli agreements more feasible than they might otherwise have been.
Netanyahu’s views on this front remain unknown for now, at least to the public. Yes, he has said that Israel welcomes the emergence of freedom anywhere in the region, but he has also warned of fundamentalist gains in the aftermath of the upheaval. Moreover, Netanyahu questions the wisdom of signing peace treaties with interlocutors who might soon lose power, leaving Israel on the wrong side of its neighbours’ domestic politics.
Such is Netanyahu’s view of the current Syrian regime, whose lack of popularity is now becoming evident. And this is also the case with Mahmoud Abbas, whose inability to even visit Gaza means that any deal with him would leave intact the fundamentalist regime there that habitually attacks Israel and insists that Israel should cease to exist.
This, in sum, is how Netanyahu will arrive in Washington. Just what he will say there is anyone’s guess, and it may well be that he himself is waiting for at least some of the Middle Eastern fog to clear before he decides what exactly to tell Congress. Netanyahu may offer a sizeable retreat, he may announce a brave understanding with Abbas, and he may expand the areas under direct Palestinian rule. Or he may offer the Palestinians nothing new, expounding instead on the Arab upheaval, on Israel’s stability, and on a recognition-first demand.
Congress, after all, is almost home turf for Netanyahu – support for him there is broad and deep – and he has addressed that forum back when Obama had yet to become a politician, and worked there as a diplomat when Obama was still in high school. The Prime Minister might therefore be tempted to send Obama a tough message from the solar plexus of American politics. All options, in short, are open and no one, not even Netanyahu’s closest aides and most senior ministers, seems able to roughly sketch what lies ahead.
The only thing that is certain is that whatever Netanyahu says in May in Washington will likely determine what Obama will say in June in Jerusalem, and whatever Obama says in June will impact what the Palestinians do in New York come September. And in an uncertain Middle East, awash with clashes between rival tribes, generations, ethnic groups, social classes, political ideologies, and religious denominations – this timetable of political cajoling, innuendo, posturing, outflanking, and smoke-screening is what passes for predictability.