The Coming U.S.-Israel Train Wreck

As inevitably as two train engines heading toward one another on a single track, the new Obama administration and the forming Israeli government of Benyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahou are on a collision course over the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The stakes are extremely high: whether peace is possible between Jews and Muslims in the area, and whether a Jewish state of Israel can long persist are among its most obvious aspects.

Two events have brought the confrontation into the spotlight. The first was the recent Israeli election, the outcome of which is likely to produce a Likud-Yisreal Beytenu coalition government of the political right that is almost certainly opposed to a two-state solution (an independent Israel and Palestine) and to dismantling Israeli settlements on the West Bank as part of the necessary costs of such a solution. The second was the pronouncement by American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that a two-state solution was “inevitable,” followed yesterday by her denunciation of Israeli plans to raze Palestinian housing in the Israeli annexed or occupied (depending on one’s view) portion of East Jerusalem as “unhelpful.”

These positions place the two parties at absolute loggerheads on the most basic issues surrounding the peace process and, to the extent the Obama administration ties progress toward a solution as a primary criterion regarding U.S.-Israeli relations, the nature of ties between the United States and Israel.

The differences in position are stark. Any movement toward a two-state solution to the current impasse requires two things of the Israelis: an admission of the legitimacy of such a state and willingness to live side-by-side with a sovereign Palestinian entity; and the inclusion of considerable territory within the West Bank currently occupied by Israelis (the settlements) to Palestinian control. Secretary Clinton presumably understands these necessary dynamics and, by deeming the movement toward a two-state solution inevitable, embraces them.

Both Netanyahou and Avigdor Lieberman oppose these conditions. In a Newsweek interview in the March 9, 2009 issue, Bibi will go only so far as to say “any final settlement for peace would have to enable the Palestinians to govern themselves, except for a handful of powers that would threaten the state of Israel.” The limits on Palestinian sovereignty he proposes include the absence of a Palestinian army, a proposal that has been on the table for well over a decade (including his last tenure as prime minister during the 1990s), and it is absolutely unacceptable to the Palestinians. Although he downplays it, Netanyahou is a long-time supporter of the West Bank settlements, and his Likud Party receives no small part of their support from the settlers.

Lieberman ismuch more forthright in opposing the removal of the settlements. He is himself a settler who lives on the West Bank, and in the Newsweek interview, he dismisses the settlements as “only one part of the problem.” Support for his Yisreal Beytenu Party is strongest in the settlement area.

Something has to give. No two-state solution is possible without creating a fully sovereign Palestinian state with territory and boundaries acceptable to the Palestinians, and everyone knows that–Americans, Israelis (including Netanyahou and Lieberman), and Palestinians. Accepting those conditions is a necessary precondition for both sides without which no progress is possible. Conversely, denying those conditions is a de facto admission of opposition to a peace settlement based on the two-state model. America wants a two-state solution, which it sees as the only road to a durable peace. In electing Netanyahou andLieberman (admittedly by the slenderest of margins), the Israelis have in essence turned their backs on that outcome.

This outcome extends, as has been argued in this space before, to the future of the Jewish state. To reiterate, the only alternatives to a two-state solution are a continuing, perpetual occupation of the West Bank that pleases the settlers but insures global enmity toward the Israelis, and a one-state solution in the form of a union of the West Bank and Israel that encompasses both Jews and Muslims. An occupied West Bank is not a durable solution, and a single state can only remain Jewish by being an apartheid state that denies political rights to its Muslim majority. In either of these outcomes, Israel inevitably loses in the long run. Yet, this is the course Israel appears intent on pursuing.

What can the United States do in these circumstances? Cajoling the Israelis in public or private without threatening negative consequences of continuing Israeli intransigence will almost certainly yield no positive results, regardless of how persuasive George Mitchell is. The result is a major foreign policy defeat for the new administration that will be tough to swallow. Likud and Yisreal Beytenu are counting on their traditional allies in the American Jewish community to force this solution, however.

There is a radical solution that could allow a recovery after the train crash. The United States could, in the same manner that it rejected the ascension of Hamas in 1996 elections in Palestine, refuse to accept the new Israeli government and suspend relations with Israel until they have new elections that produce a government that will negotiate a two-state solution. That is precisely what the United States did to the Palestinians; why not give the Israelis a taste of the same medicine?

I do not, of course, believe for a second that such a ploy will be proposed or entertained by the new administration. The domestic American political consequences would be entirely too high, and although it would probably have wide support in the Muslim Middle East, that would not be enough to compensate for the domestic fallout. 

In some ways, the situation resembles a game of “chicken,” where the engineers of both trains (the American “Two-State Express” and the Likud-Yisrael “Greater Israel Limited”) are careening toward inevitable collision and destruction. There are only two ways to avoid it: for at least one of the parties to change its position (unlikely), or for one side to change engineers (also unlikely). At the moment, neither side seems predisposed to chicken out of the disastrous consequences.

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One Response to “The Coming U.S.-Israel Train Wreck”

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