Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu Could Have Prevented U.N. Vote on Palestinian Statehood
How Benjamin Netanyahu has undermined Palestinian peace talks—and undermined Obama’s ability to help.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury over the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations reminds me of that famous line from the movie Cold Mountain: “they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say, "It's rainin'!”
When Netanyahu became prime minister, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urged him to resume negotiations where Abbas and Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, had left off. According to the journalist Bernard Avishai and documents leaked to Al Jazeera, Abbas had agreed to a non-militarized Palestinian state, Israeli control over all the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, an international peacekeeping force in the Jordan Valley and the return of what chief negotiator Saab Erekat later called a “symbolic number” of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Olmert and Abbas were haggling over the holy sites in Jerusalem and over how much land Israel would swap inside its 1967 border in return for annexing settlements in the West Bank. But in Olmert’s words “We were very close” and Abbas “never said no.”
Abbas wanted to continue those negotiations even amidst the Palestinian fury that followed Israel’s January 2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip. And former U.S. officials believe that had Netanyahu picked up where Olmert left off, the Palestinians would have dropped their demand for a settlement freeze as a precondition for talks. The settlement freeze, after all, was insurance against long, fruitless negotiations that offered Israel cover for swallowing up more and more of the West Bank. Continuing the Olmert-Abbas talks, by contrast, offered the prospect of a deal within months.
But Netanyahu refused. In fact, at the beginning of his prime ministership, he refused to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state at all. Then when he did, he insisted that Israel could never relinquish any part of Jerusalem or admit even a single refugee, thus repudiating Olmert’s concessions. So the Palestinians demanded a settlement freeze. Instead they got a fig leaf: According to Peace Now, there was more settlement construction in 2010, the year of Netanyahu’s “freeze” than in 2008. But under U.S. pressure, they began talks nonetheless. The only problem was that according to U.S. officials and journalistic accounts, Netanyahu refused to talk about borders, Jerusalem or refugees. He would only discuss security. When the Palestinians tried to hand Netanyahu and his negotiators documents detailing their positions in the Olmert-Abbas talks, the Israelis refused to even read them. Meanwhile, Netanyahu in early 2010 designated the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, both deep in the West Bank, as Israeli heritage sites.
For Abbas, who had watched the settler population grow by more than fifty percent during the seven years of the Oslo negotiations, endless talks with a prime minister patently uninterested in creating a Palestinian state was a nightmare scenario he was determined to avoid. So he ended negotiations and began preparing to appeal for statehood at the United Nations.
Still, Netanyahu had one last chance to derail the UN bid. This May, Obama threw him a life preserver in the form of a speech urging negotiations based on the 1967 borders plus land swaps, exactly the principle that had structured the Olmert-Abbas talks. In his speech, Obama said nothing about a settlement freeze, and he didn’t demand equal land swaps, thus undercutting two of Abbas’ demands. Still, the Palestinians did not reject Obama’s proposal, and had Israel embraced it, they would have come under massive pressure from the United States and Europe to ditch their UN bid and return to talks. But they never faced that pressure because Netanyahu loudly rejected Obama’s parameters. In so doing, he made this month’s showdown at the UN virtually inevitable.
In rejecting Obama’s proposal, Netanyahu said something telling: He called himself “the leader of a persecuted people.” That statement represented a mirror image of Yitzhak Rabin’s famous 1992 declaration that “No longer are we necessarily ‘A people that dwell alone,’ and no longer is it true that ‘The whole world is against us.’” As a purely descriptive matter, neither Netanyahu nor Rabin is entirely right: Yes, Jews no longer dwell alone in the way they did in the past, but anti-Semitic persecution still exists. But more important than the sociological accuracy of Rabin and Netanyahu’s statements is the way in which they made their perceptions self-fulfilling. Rabin made peace with Jordan, strengthened relations with Egypt and Turkey and enjoyed a father-son relationship with the president of the United States. He ended decades-old discriminatory policies against Israel’s Arab citizens, and when an assassin took his life, some Israeli Arab villages—for the first time—held public ceremonies in which they saluted the Israeli flag. [Yair Ettinger, “Arabs Too Will Mourn,” Haaretz, available here.]
Benjamin Netanyahu’s prime ministership has been self-fulfilling as well. The Turks have expelled Israel’s ambassador. Israel’s embassy in Egypt has been sacked. Netanyahu is loathed inside the White House, and many other Western governments. And a movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel is gaining force around the world. Netanyahu does not bear the sole blame for this growing isolation, but through his refusal to seriously contemplate ending the occupation, he has aided and abetted it. And in the process, he has weakened two of the men Israel most needs to avoid becoming a global pariah: Mahmoud Abbas, a Palestinian leader genuinely committed to nonviolence and two states, and Barack Obama, an American president who has stood by Netanyahu even though it has destroyed much of his own prestige in the Arab world.
One day, when America has less power to protect Israel than it does today, and when Abbas has given way to Palestinian leaders less interested in being Israel’s subcontractor against Palestinian terror, I suspect American Zionists will look back nostalgically upon this month’s bid for a Palestinian state, a bid that legitimizes Israel inside the green line in return for a Palestinian state beyond it. By then, if the occupation becomes permanent, the Jewish state may indeed dwell alone. In his 2003 book, Sleeping on a Wire, David Grossman wondered how long Israel could treat its Arab population like “an enemy without in the end actually turning it into one.” Grossman was thinking too small. If Israel continues on its current course, it will conduct that experiment with the entire world.