The Israeli Smoke Screen

The United States’ deal to extend a settlement freeze in Israel skirts the issue. What Israelis really care about is security, says Richard Cohen.

11.16.10 11:43 AM ET

The United States and Israel have reached a deal. In exchange for $3 billion worth of F-35 fighter planes (20 of them) and the promise to veto any attempt in the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian nation, the U.S. got Israel to agree to a 90-day freeze on building settlements in the West Bank. This raises an interesting question: What would Israel have offered if the U.S. had thrown in an aircraft carrier?

The willingness of Israel to be bribed and the willingness of the United States to offer bribes has become an ugly part of the current so-called Middle East negotiation. After all, Washington is not asking Jerusalem to do something that is not in its own best interest. The West Bank has to go, most of it anyway. It is not an internationally recognized part of Israel and it is full of Arabs, most of them distinctly unfriendly to the Jewish State. Zealots may overlook the demographic and diplomatic realties, but the government may not. Binyamin Netanyahu’s responsibility is to all his people.

The 20 promised F-35s may induce right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition government to support the 90-day freeze. (What they will do on day 91 is another matter entirely.) It surely helped Netanyahu that he was able to leave his marathon session with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with something to offer his critics–some goodies from Washington. But these airplanes do not advance the peace process. They’re just gifts for under the Chanukah bush.

Netanyahu knows what’s best for Israel. It’s too bad he lacks either the political skills or the leadership chops to make the case without the goodies from Washington.

It has long been apparent that the Obama administration at first did not know what it was doing in the Middle East. The emphasis on West Bank settlements–a Barack Obama obsession, it seems–was misplaced. Most Israelis do not give a damn about the settlements. What they do give a damn about is security. When Israel pulled out of Gaza, it got a daily barrage of rockets by way of thank you. When it pulled out of Lebanon, it got the same gratitude. The UN promised no more rockets. Surprise! The rockets are back.

So when it comes to creating a Palestinians state right next door, Israelis are apprehensive. Will Hamas take over as it did in Gaza? How will Israel ensure that the Palestinians state does not become the home office of terrorism? Who will make sure that nearby Jordan Valley does not become one vast rocket pad? Iran is always starting trouble. Will it have willing partners in a Palestinian state? These are not academic questions for Israel. These are matters of life and death.

But the F-35s cannot patrol the border. They do nothing to solve the problem of a Palestinian state. Their importance relates to Iran and the existential threat it and its nuclear program pose. This is not incidental by any means, but it has been American policy for Israel to always maintain its military edge. Unless America is going to rescind that policy–not a chance, really–the planes were going to go to Israel sooner or later. Now it’s sooner.

The haggling that Netanyahu did with Clinton should not be the way matters are conducted between friends. The planes were the functional equivalent of a parent bribing a child to do his or her homework–inducing the kid to do what is in his best interest anyway. This infantalization of Israel is not pretty to behold. Netanyahu knows what’s best for Israel. It’s too bad he lacks either the political skills or the leadership chops to make the case without the goodies from Washington. And it’s too bad Washington didn’t make clear that it will provide whatever Israel needs to maintain its security–including all the gizmos necessary to detect and intercept rockets.

The emphasis on settlements has led the U.S. to give veto power over an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to the most reactionary forces in Israel. Issues regarding borders and security should have come first. Once the map was redrawn, the bitter-end settlers could be given the option of either leaving their settlements or staying–and becoming residents of Palestine. They will be, as they choose, in God’s hands.

Obduracy and bad choices are the abundant natural resources of the Middle East. Maybe this latest tactic will succeed –and the 90th day will become the 91st and then the 92nd and the negotiations will continue. This is the apparent hope of the Obama administration and the whispered pledge of the Netanyahu government. Maybe it will work. If not, Washington can throw in some more airplanes.

Richard Cohen is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and a contributor to The Daily Beast.