07.06.10

Obama, Don't Go Wobbly on Israel

The president has tried to avoid public spats with Bibi Netanyahu. But as the Israeli prime minister visits Washington, Obama needs to keep the pressure on—or abandon hope of a Palestinian state.

At some point during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House this week, aides should take President Barack Obama aside and whisper three simple words: Don’t Go Wobbly. Ever since the conflagration set off by Israel’s humiliation of Vice President Joe Biden in March, the Obama administration has seemed desperate to kiss and make up. Domestically, its Jewish outreach efforts have reached the point of self-parody. In May, the White House held the first-ever reception honoring “ Jewish American Heritage Month,” an annual celebration of Semitism that, as far as I can tell, most of my fellow Americans of Jewish heritage had never heard of. Team Obama has tried to love bomb the Israeli government, too. It was all set to fete Netanyahu at the White House a few weeks ago when the Gaza flotilla disaster intruded. But it made sure to keep its public response mild enough so that after a decent interval, the festivities could proceed.

For Obama, the upshot is this: As long as Netanyahu rules Israel and Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian state may be impossible.

The problem with the Obama administration’s desire to avoid any more public spats with Benjamin Netanyahu is that avoiding public spats with Benjamin Netanyahu may mean abandoning the prospect of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, after all, has opposed such a state for his entire career. He opposed it last year when he ran for prime minister. He spurned Kadima’s Tzipi Livni when she demanded that he reverse that opposition as the price of her joining his coalition government. And when he finally uttered the words “Palestinian state” under U.S. pressure, he added two poison pills—that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and accept that they will never have a capital in East Jerusalem—that go far beyond the proposals made by former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. In contrast to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who wants to pick up where Barak and Olmert left off, Netanyahu refuses to even specify what the final borders of a Palestinian state would be. And without intense pressure from the United States, he will almost certainly revoke his partial settlement freeze and resume unfettered construction in the West Bank.

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A few more years of this and the window for a two-state solution will likely close. Already, there are roughly 300,000 settlers in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), perhaps a quarter of whom would resist evacuation by force. Their numbers are growing fast, and they are increasingly becoming the backbone of the very Israeli combat units that would be expected to uproot them. Many moderate Palestinians have already abandoned hope in a two- state solution, and are instead advocating one, secular, binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. (What restrains them is the self-interest of their leaders, who want a Palestinian state they can rule). And even in Israel, despair about a two-state solution is growing. In a remarkable recent column, former Likud defense minister Moshe Arens, one of the most thoughtful voices on the Israeli right, argued for annexing the West Bank and giving Palestinians there the vote.

For Obama, the upshot is this: As long as Netanyahu rules Israel and Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian state may be impossible. But what Obama can do is prevent Netanyahu from foreclosing the possibility in the future—as long as he doesn’t back down from a public fight. As Aluf Benn noted recently in Haaretz, every time Obama has exerted pressure on Netanyahu—to declare his support for a Palestinian state, to partially freeze settlement growth, to limit building in East Jerusalem, and to ease the Gaza embargo—Netanyahu has to some extent caved. “In the face of Obama,” Benn writes, Netanyahu’s “roar turns into a whimper. He makes speeches about our historical rights and then does what the Americans dictate.” In Washington, it’s easy to believe that an American president wields little power over an Israeli prime minister. But for Israelis, the true power dynamic is harder to ignore. For one thing, America is Israel’s only powerful and reliable ally (particularly today, as Israel alienates ex-friends like Turkey). For another, U.S. governments enjoy a political stability that Israeli governments lack. Barack Obama knows that he will be in office until at least 2013; Benjamin Netanyahu knows no such thing. To underscore the point, Ehud Barak, whose Labor Party constitutes the third largest bloc in Netanyahu’s coalition, has been publicly demanding that Netanyahu grow more serious about the peace process—with the implicit threat that if he does not, Labor might bring down the government. If he exploits them shrewdly, Obama can use the divisions in Netanyahu’s coalition to make him bend.

I was in Israel last week, and my conversations tracked what the polls suggest: Israelis don’t love Barack Obama. Even leftists don’t grasp his strategy for the region and feel slighted that he has spoken repeatedly to the Arab world, but not to them. But many of the same people who derided Obama said they consider him their best hope. It’s a sign of how desperate the Israeli peace camp has become. Do Israeli doves really believe Obama can bring about the two-state solution for which they yearn? Maybe not. He can, however, prevent Netanyahu and his allies from destroying that hope forever. He can preserve the possibility of a democratic Zionist state until Israelis recommit to it themselves. To borrow a metaphor, he can act as a bridge. As long as he doesn’t go wobbly.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.