Obama’s coming to Israel is considered a deus ex machina moment for many among us in the “peace camp” here in Israel, a unique opportunity where an American president who shares many of our values will intervene and perhaps finally save us from ourselves (or at least from our stubborn government). This sentiment is echoed of course by our partners abroad—and as our country's security apparatus prepares to shut down our roads for a couple of days of Obamamania, the world, and especially the U.S., is waking up to try and give peace a chance.
Well, let’s be honest. We’re not being called on to give “peace” a chance but rather to give “direct negotiations” a chance. After all, a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians seems so 90s. It reminds us of an era of optimism with dreams of a New Middle East.
Today, the hope is not that we will achieve an historic peace, but that the sides will talk directly with each other. We don't discuss what they will talk about, but it’s important that they talk. Obama, we think, can provide a great opportunity. We wish to believe that a strong power from outside the region, an American power, will bring the unwilling sides back to the negotiating table. Talking is better than stalemate, right?
The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes our problems can be sorted out at that table. But they can’t. Primarily because the leader of our government does not want two states—at least not in a way that is acceptable to the Palestinians or to the world. Sure, Netanyahu has used the phrase “two states” before, but when he did he also made it clear that the 1967 lines will not be the basis for a conversation about borders, a point which basically renders the phrase “two states” meaningless.
During his last term as prime minister, Netanyahu supported continued settlement construction, over-funded settlements with a variety of subsidies, refused to demolish settlements (including those deemed illegal by Israeli law), and tried to advance an official legal opinion, via the Levy Report, that sees the territories as not occupied. His government has harassed Israeli human rights organizations and attacked world leaders who criticized our policies towards the Palestinians. Worse yet, his party in 2013 is much further to the right than it was in 2009, having ousted moderates like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin and replaced them with the likes of Moshe Feiglin—a religious zealot who believes we should annex the entire West Bank and build the third temple.
Although Netanyahu has tried to curb Feiglin's political power, he has not acted against Feiglin's proposals, nor has he made any statement, let alone taken any action, to suggest that he might be interested in a different route. Prior to the elections, Netanyahu failed to provide even the most basic of political statements: a party platform outlining his vision for the outcome of negotiations. His party, and the further-right Habayit Hayehudi party, not only support a Greater Israel and a creeping annexation, but claim it as their ideological backbone. Is it not a bit wishful to think that by adding a dash of centrism to a right-wing government like this one, they will be persuaded to completely revise its belief system when they sit at a table with Abu Mazen? And if not, why are we investing so much political energy into making that happen?
This may be reason enough to make us skeptical of what resumption of talks really aims to achieve, but why oppose negotiations? Maybe something good can come out of them, and aren’t they better than the current stalemate? Probably not. There are serious risks in pushing for talks we think will likely fail. First, failed negotiations are dangerous, and can lead to mistrust, or worse yet—bloodshed. If negotiations fail (and, again, there are some convincing reasons to believe that they will), we will undoubtedly be worse off than we are now. Second, when the right sits down at the negotiation table, they both build as they negotiate, creating even more facts on the ground, and inject new stipulations into the negotiations that make a two-state solution next to impossible. If we, as the left, support the right as they enter negotiations without asking them where such negotiations will ultimately lead, we may find ourselves supporting positions we oppose.
The third threat is political. There is a peace camp in Israel contending for the leadership of the country. I, for one, would like to see it come to power. But when it supports failed negotiations with dishonest negotiators, it is doing itself a disservice. The left ends up standing behind something it doesn’t believe in, and when the talks fail, it’s the peace camp that will pay the political price. Because we gave it our stamp of approval, it will be considered ours—even though we knew it was a lost cause.
Does this mean we should oppose anything Netanyahu does? Of course not—we have examples in the past where the right made serious revisions in their worldview and moved towards a settlement. But they need to take real action first. Ariel Sharon, in order to forward the disengagement (a far from perfect and very partial move forward) left the Likud and formed a new party. We should expect no less from Netanyahu. But if he is not willing to make a clear choice and move towards an honest peace deal based on two states along the 1967 borders, these negotiations will be at best a waste of precious time and at worst will usher in an era of increased violence and occupation.
So what should we do? The most important thing is to stop idealizing the “process.” We need a settlement, a deal, not a process. For that we need decisions, not conversations. The left in Israel has a platform acceptable to many Palestinians and to the world community. Obama himself reiterated the policy in 2011: two sovereign states based on 1967 lines. Unless Netanyahu tells us that the aim of negotiations is that, we should oppose them vigorously.