Tomorrow, Mahmoud Abbas stands before the U.N. General Assembly and presents a resolution to upgrade Palestine’s membership to the status of an “observer-state.” The Obama administration has signaled that it will oppose this resolution, as it vetoed a Security Council condemnation of settlements last year—putatively to emphasize the need for direct negotiations between the parties. With the Iranian nuclear program still on the horizon, the administration is loathe to call its “special relationship” with Israel into question, or run afoul of a hardline Israeli consensus, of which Benjamin Netanyahu is presumably custodian.
AIPAC is mobilized, warning of Abbas’s non-violent effort as, of all things, a “flanking maneuver.” We hear much about the danger of Palestinian diplomats, newly elevated to representatives of an observer-state, bringing action in the International Criminal Court against Israeli officials and officers linked to settlements—a back-handed acknowledgement, curiously, that settlements are seen as a contravention of the Geneva Conventions everywhere but in Israel.
In opposing this resolution, however, especially in the aftermath of the recent Gaza stalemate, the administration is foregoing the chance to reinforce the very forces in Israel and Palestine that are serious about compromise. A great many Israeli leaders and military intelligence officials understand the urgency of Abbas’s timing—of strengthening his hand—and see no reason to oppose his resolution.
The most important is former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who engaged in direct negotiations with Abbas more than any other Israeli. Why should the administration ignore their view and let the region slide into what the latest flare-up in Gaza promised, Bosnian levels of bloodshed?
“I believe,” Olmert wrote me, intending his statement to be made public, “that the Palestinian request from the United Nations is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution. Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it. Once the United Nations will lay the foundation for this idea, we in Israel will have to engage in a serious process of negotiations, in order to agree on specific borders based on the 1967 lines, and resolve the other issues. It is time to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians. Abu-Mazen"—an alias for Abbas—"and Salam Fayyad need our help. It's time to give it.”
Is Olmert just chasing the past? Isn’t the antagonism between Hamas and Israel’s “consensus” now the only relevant reality? Nonsense. What makes Abbas irrelevant is not Hamas “steadfastness,” but his failure to garner sufficient American backing for the principles he and Olmert worked through over 36 meetings in 2008: principles for resolving Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees consistent with the positions taken by previous American administrations, but which Netanyahu refuses to accept as a basis for new negotiations.
Abbas, as a matter of fact, is going to the U.N. with Hamas’s blessing, as the Palestinian president, and head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And the two and a half million Palestinians he has led to peaceful state-building in West Bank cities since 2006, along with the police force and private sector cultivated by Prime Minister Fayyad, represent a development path far more promising for ordinary Palestinians than missiles and endless, mutual terrorizing. Before the last round of violence, polls showed Fatah with more support in Gaza than in the West Bank, 40 percent to Hamas’s 22 percent.
Moreover, as I wrote here before, the inconclusive end to the Gaza violence unlocked important doors for American diplomacy to push through, the way Kissinger did after the 1973 war. Egypt’s Islamist President Morsi, like the Nasserite Anwar Sadat before him, is proving to be pragmatic on Palestine, afraid to be dragged into war over Gaza, desperate for financial assistance from the U.S. and the IMF. Nothing will deepen America’s relationship with (and influence on) Egypt like cooperation on Palestine, grounded in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.
But the Israeli “consensus,” too, is chimerical. As in 1973, it is dawning on Israelis, though first on their pundits, that “deterrence”—the sheer capacity to intimidate Palestinians—is no more a security strategy than Moshe Dayan’s “security borders” were after 1967. Palestinians can’t invade or defeat Israel, that’s clear. But, equally clear, Israel can’t invade neighbors either, as in 1982—not without inviting a barrage of missiles, or inflicting levels of civilian casualties on Palestinians that neither Egypt nor “the world” will accept; not without an unbridled regional violence that will eventually topple, not only the PA, but the Hashemite throne in Jordan, bring in Hezbollah, and precipitate a new Intifada across the West Bank and among Israeli Arab citizens in Galilee as well.
The administration, in other words, could start with, say, an abstention on Abbas’s resolution in the U.N., or if not that, then an invitation to the White House, and move quickly to a “disengagement of forces” agreement on the Gaza front, and a call for new negotiations over borders based on, as Obama already declared, “the 1967 lines with land swaps.”
That’s exactly, Olmert knows, what could yet transform Israeli politics. Netanyahu speaks of “reestablishing deterrence.” Israelis are not impressed. Netanyahu’s merging of the Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-rightists—along with the victory of extremists in Likud primaries—has made him seem not only a captive of the tycoons, but of settlers and the Orthodox as well. He has, inadvertently, polarized the electorate instead of capturing the center, something like what Romney did in choosing Ryan.
A majority of Israelis, granted, think Netanyahu is the best leader to deal with a tough neighborhood, which they fear. But a different majority does not want a government that exempts the ultra-Orthodox from work and military duty, threatens the authority of the Supreme Court, and pours money into the West Bank settlements while Tel Aviv is clogged. The only thing all Israelis fear as much as the neighborhood is ruined relations with Washington.
In short, what the administration has to do to undermine the so-called consensus is, as Olmert says, give Abbas a hand. It is, indeed, “time to give it.”