Hardening Positions on Israel and Palestine
In his epic speech in Cairo this morning, President Obama laid down more clearly and unequivocally than previously his position on the Palestine situation and, in the process, brought the United States into the starkest conmfrontation with the government of Israel in recent times.
Both sides have hardened their positions. Over the weekend, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahou rejected the American insistence on “freezing” further development of new settlements on the West Bank, stating that “Israel cannot freeze life in the settlements.” Israeli officials yesterday complained publicly (if anonymously) that the Obama administration was reneging on Bush administration policies regarding the settlements, which they say contained four points: no new settlements to be started; no financial incentives to get additional Israelis to move to existing settlements; no new construction except in existing settlements; and no new Palestinian lands appropriated for additional settlements. In return for these limits, continuing development was supposedly permissible within existing settlement areas.
The Israelis contend that Obama wishes further to restrict this agreement unilaterally. In his Cairo speech, Obama made his position quite clear. “So let there be no doubt,” he said, “the situation of the Palsetinian people is intolerable.” The basic barrier to relieving the situation is in the settlement policy, and he is quite clear on that subject as well. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements….It is time for these settlements to stop.”
The underlying dynamic of which the settlements are the symbol is, of course, the question of the Palestinian political state. The Netanyahou regime, rhetoric notwithstanding, is opposed to such a state, and it is hard to imagine the current Israeli prime minister will ever permit such a state to come into existence on his watch. Whether this position is praiseworthy or not is a matter of perspective.
The Obama position, which has been discussed in this space previously, is quite the opposite, and Obama reiterated that position in no uncertain terms in the Cairo speech: “The only resolution is for the aspiration of both sides to be met through two states….This is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest.”
Netanyahou and Obama obviously disagree on what is in Israel’s interest, a question that can be and is debated endlessly and, all too often, venomously. What is absolutely clear is that the position of the United States and Israeli governments are diametrically opposed on this issue, that the positions are gradually hardening on both sides, and that as that hardening occurs, the possibility of compromise becomes progressively more remote. In this case, the lack of resolution is clearly a form of resolution in and of itself, since a continuation of the status quo means that more and more Israelis will move to West Bank settlements, with the consequence that the formation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank (the heart of the two-state solution) becomes increasingly physically impossible. Such a resolution by non-resolution clearly serves the purposes of the Netanyahou government and contradicts the position of the Obama administration.
Who will win this toe-to-toe confrontation? For the last eight years, it was clear that the Israelis would prevail, and they probably think they will this time too. The problem is that Obama clearly has a mind of his own on this issue, and by including his position in such stark terms for all the Muslim (and non-Muslim) world to see, he is making it increasingly (and purposely) difficult for him to back away from. There is a collision coming here!