New Lines in the Palestinian Sand
With the addition of the 13-seat Labor party to its coalition, the Netanyahou government is basically in place. The accession of Labor–at the insistence of its leader, Ehud Barak–is controversial and may tear the former largest party in Israel apart, because it aligns pro-peace Labor with a Likud/Yisrael Beitenu coalition whose commitment to peace is, to put it politely, questionable. It also sets the basis for a more-or-less open confrontation between Israel and its most important supporter, the United States. The basis of that confrontation is, of course, the question of Palestinan statehood: the two-state solution. Likud/Yisrael oppose the two-state solution (although they do not openly say so in the present climate); the Obama administration clearly favors it. New lines are being drawn in the sand over Palestine. Who will prevail?
The mounting change in U.S.-Israeli relations could be both fundamental and traumatic. It is, of course, also part of a cyclical debate about that relationship. The two sides in the American debate have, roughly speaking, been between those who side decisively with Israel on Middle Eastern issues and those who propound a more balanced view of Israel and its Muslim neighbors. The pro-Israeli faction was in control under Bush, where American policy often appeared to be initiated in Tel Aviv (or Jersualem). The drivers of this policy position are what I called American Likud in a recent posting. The Obama administration represents a return to the more balanced position often associated historically with the old “Arabist” group in the State Department and last having official influence under Clinton. The fact of fluctuation is, in and of itself, not unusual.
What is unusual and potentially incendiary is the combination of an American regime committed to a two-state solution and an Israeli government that opposes such a position. The last time that combination existed was in the latter 1990s, when Bill Clinton led an American government committed to the peace process and Bibi Netanyahou led a Likud government in Israel. In the 1990s, Netanyahou lost the confrontation and was replaced–admittedly for reasons going well beyond the confrontation with the U.S. over Palestine. Nonetheless, some precedent does exist, and it may help explain why Bibi is going to some length to appear more conciliatory on the Palestine issue than he really is.
There are two evidences of Bibi’s attempt to move toward the political middle on the two-state issue. One is the addition of Labor to the ruling coalition, since Labor has been one of the most prominent voices for peace in Israeli politics. Barak has said one of his motivations for joining the Netanyahou government was his hope of being able to influence the government toward peace. Whether the bargain he made toward that end will prove to be heroic, quixotic, or faustian remains to be seen. For Netanyahou, it is a win-win proposition: he hopefully gains credibility with the Americans, but is not committed to anything more than politiely listening to Labor entreaties, which he can ignore without endangering his governing majority.
The other evidence is Netanyahou’s attempt to portray his position as pro-peace, at least partially to help align himself more closely with the Americans. Obama this week declared that movement toward a Palestinian state is “critical” to ending what he describes as an “unsustainable” Palestinian situation: in other words, the two-state solution already endorsed by Hillary Clinton. There is nothing in Netanyahou’s past that suggests he agrees, but he does not want to appear to disagree. To that end, he declared yesterday that “the Palestinians should understnad that they have in our government a partner for peace, for security, and for rapid development of the Palestinian economy.” Peace, in other words, with no sovereign Palestinian state. That outcome is standard Likud party line, and because it means that continued settlement of the West Bank can fit under its conceptual umbrella, it also expressed Yisrael sentiment.
No matter how much lipstick one puts on the pig, however, it is still a porker. The simple fact is the Palestinians will accept no peace settlement that does not include a sovereign state. As noted in the last posting, Bibi’s “conciliatory” position is warmed-over 1990s stuff, a think coating of make-up for the pig. It does not fool the Palestinians, and it will not fool the Obama administration. If Obama and his emissaries are serious about peace in a way others have not been, there is confrontation in the future. How it plays outs and who wins will be an absolutely fascinating case in the real workings of international power politics, and I will be watching and reporting on it.