09.27.10

How U.S. Jews Stymie Peace Talks

Mideast talks fall apart, as Israel lets West Bank settlements begin anew. Peter Beinart on how American Jewish groups tie Obama’s hands—and work against peace.

This just in, for anyone in the United States who still cares: Israel has not renewed the partial settlement freeze it imposed ten months ago. Which means that the direct talks with the Palestinians born this month may die in the crib. Which raises an interesting question: What would it take to make American Jewish groups admit that an Israeli prime minister is not serious about peace?

You could hardly find a better test case than Benjamin Netanyahu. Until last year, Netanyahu had not just spent his entire political career opposing a Palestinian state; he had repeatedly compared such a state to Nazi Germany. He opposed the Oslo peace talks at their inception, and as prime minister in the late 1990s so consistently reneged on commitments made by his predecessors that U.S. envoy Dennis Ross later noted that “neither President Clinton nor Secretary Albright believed that Bibi had any real interest in pursuing peace.” In 2005, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed dismantling Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu resigned from his cabinet in protest. Netanyahu was still on record as opposing a Palestinian state in 2009, when he again ran for prime minister. He hewed to this position when forming his coalition government, even though doing so helped keep Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima party from joining his cabinet, thus preventing Netanyahu from assembling the national unity government he claimed to want in order to confront Iran. Through all of this, the major American Jewish groups still refused to publicly entertain the idea that Netanyahu was anything but a champion of peace.

Then, last summer, under intense pressure from the United States, Netanyahu reversed course. In a speech at Bar Ilan University, he announced that he now supported a Palestinian state—before adding two conditions that no previous Israeli prime minister had imposed. The first was that the Palestinians not merely recognize Israel, but recognize it as a Jewish state. The second was that all of Jerusalem remain under Israeli sovereignty, a condition that precluded the offers that Ehud Barak had made in 2000 and 2001 and Ehud Olmert made in 2008. As Livni commented after the speech, “Netanyahu doesn’t really believe that two states, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, even a demilitarized one, is an Israeli interest. But…he understood that at this stage he needs to utter the words ‘two states.’” America’s Jewish organizations, by contrast, hailed the speech as a sign of Netanyahu’s commitment to peace.

Obama pressured Netanyahu to curb the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The harder the White House pushed, the more American Jewish groups objected.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration pressured Netanyahu to curb the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The harder the White House pushed, the more American Jewish groups objected. “Mr. President—The Problem Isn’t Settlements,” declared a summer 2009 advertisement by the Anti-Defamation League. But when Netanyahu did agree to a partial (and, as it would turn out, lightly enforced) settlement moratorium, AIPAC hailed it as a sign of, you guessed it, “Israel’s Peace Commitment.”

So let’s get this straight. When Netanyahu agrees to a settlement moratorium, it’s a sign of his commitment to peace. And now that he has let the moratorium end? It’s still a sign of his commitment to peace because, as AIPAC now insists, negotiations must proceed without preconditions. It’s back to “the problem isn’t settlements.”

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But the problem—or at least a crucial problem— is settlements. Creating a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank could easily require moving 100,000 settlers—ten times as many as Israel removed in Gaza, on far more theologically charged land. All those settlers will have to be financially compensated (at least partially, judging from the Oslo discussions, with U.S. taxpayer dollars). Many will have to be violently confronted, a terrifying prospect given that militant settlers comprise a larger and larger share of the Israeli officer corps. (Yitzhak Rabin, remember, was assassinated for merely contemplating the removal of West Bank settlements). And even if all this can be done without civil war, any land Israel keeps in the West Bank will likely have to be traded for land within pre-1967 Israel, and there’s not much land to trade.

Extending the settlement freeze might have prompted some of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners to quit his government. But a prime minister genuinely interested in a final status deal would have said good riddance, and brought in Livni’s Kadima instead, thus creating a government composed of people who actually support a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, however, has not done that, just as he refused to create a centrist government during his first stint as prime minister. The reason is that he likes governing alongside racist, pro-settler parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Ovadiah Yosef’s Shas. They give him political cover to do what he has wanted to do all along: Make a viable Palestinian state impossible.

He’s well on his way. Whether or not the Obama administration can strong-arm Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas into continuing the negotiations, Netanyahu’s decision has empowered the settlers, strengthened Hamas and made it more likely that sometime in the next year or two, the occupied territories will again explode into violence. But there is one silver lining. By his actions, Netanyahu has laid bare the criteria that American Jewish organizations actually use for evaluating the behavior of an Israeli leader. To be labeled a champion of peace by the American Jewish establishment, it turns out, a prime minister of Israel only really has to do one thing: be prime minister of Israel.

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.