What The White House Could Learn From Barak’s Farewell Message

Carlo Strenger on three important takeaways from Ehud Barak's final appearance at AIPAC as Israel's defense minister.

Ehud Barak’s speech at AIPAC did not break new ground. Nevertheless, the White House and the State Department would do well to pick up on his suggestion not to focus exclusively on resuming a peace-process with the Palestinians, but to integrate such negotiations in a wider, regional approach.

Barak’s keynote speech at the AIPAC conference was a combination of self-serving apologetics and actual policy suggestions. In calling for a daring peace initiative, Barak conveniently skips the fact that he has been Benjamin Netanyahu’s fig leaf for not doing anything vis-à-vis the Palestinians for the last four years. And he conveniently makes us forget that his famous statement that there is no Palestinian partner for peace in 2000 has played an enormous role in cementing the stalemate of the last thirteen years.

Nevertheless he made three important points: one is that Israel needs to move ahead quickly, because otherwise we begin to slide on the slippery slope towards a one-state reality. The second is the possibility of an intermediary agreement in case a final status agreement will not be possible. And the third is that any future process with the Palestinians should be integrated in a regional approach to the Middle Eastern problems.

In arguing for an intermediary stage in the peace process Barak echoes moderate mainstream thinking in Israel. No prime minister would currently make a hurried retreat to the 1967 borders. First, because Hamas has never changed its official policy of destroying Israel, and has never made a clear commitment to renounce armed struggle, i.e. terror attacks against Israel. And since Hamas might rule the West Bank at some point, no Israeli leader could conceivably take the risk of rocket attacks on Israel’s population centers. Second, because the Middle East is highly volatile and because it is difficult to take far-reaching security risks in the current situation.

Barak was not sufficiently generous to say that there is a blueprint for such a two-stage process formulated by the leader of Kadima, former Chief of Staff of the IDF and defense minister Shaul Mofaz in 2012. Its core is that Israel immediately recognize a Palestinian State in temporary borders on roughly sixty percent of the West Bank. This would immediately liberate more than 99 percent of Palestinians of Israeli rule, dramatically improve their quality and dignity of life while preserving Israel’s security interest. But Mofaz also said that he would, from the start, guarantee that the future Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 borders with land-swaps to be hammered out in negotiations.

This is an eminently reasonable plan, and sources tell me that Abbas reacted positively to it. It is reasonable, because it would guarantee the Palestinians that they will not be stuck forever in a new status quo that would be a lot better than their present situation, but unacceptable as a final outcome of the process. At the same time, the plan allows for Israel to maintain security control over vital areas until the volatile situation both within Palestinian society and the surrounding state stabilizes.

The question is whether Netanyahu’s next government will be willing and able to do anything of the sort. Assuming that the government will be based on Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Livni’s Hatnu’ah and Mofaz’s Kadima party together Naftali Bennett’s national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party, such movement is unlikely to occur. The latter party’s platform of explicitly states that there will be no Palestinian state west of the Jordan, and calls for immediate annexation of sixty percent of the West Bank. Add to this that more than half of Netanyahu’s own party is opposed to the two state solution. Bennett will almost certainly leave the government if it moves towards serious compromise with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu will face stiff opposition in the Likud.

Any scenario beyond this is sheer guesswork. Given the current polls, Netanyahu will avoid elections by all means, because Lapid will have more mandates than the Likud. The question is whether Netanyahu will be able to continue his game of claiming that he wants to negotiate, or actually negotiating without moving anywhere. This largely depends on three factors.

First: now that the U.N. recognizes Palestinians as a non-member state, they can turn to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for every act of settlement. Leading Israeli legal scholar Ruth Gavison has made clear that this is a realistic option, and that it is a nightmare scenario for Israel. Netanyahu may in any case have to enforce a settlement freeze to avoid this.

Second: public opinion in Europe is losing patience with Israel’s settlement policy, and there are indications that the EU, Israel’s largest trading partner, may move towards sanctions against products and services from the settlements. While this may not have an immediate impact on Israel’s economy at large, it would set a precedent for further sanctions against Israel.

Third: Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel indicates that the White House will no longer be as passive towards Israel as it was during the first term, and Secretary of State Kerry has repeatedly said that the Israel-Palestine will be high on his list of priority.

Netanyahu may therefore soon be in a situation where he actually has to act if he wants to avoid a truly gruesome decline in Israel’s international standing. This is where Barak’s final point is important. He called for an integrated Middle Eastern Strategy towards Islamic Terrorism and towards Iran. Obama and Kerry might do well hone in on this point. Instead of focusing exclusively on jump-starting Israel-Palestine negotiations, it should foster regional cooperation on these issues, where Israel and most of the Arab world have mostly identical concerns and interests.

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They could offer both Israel and moderate Arab states a security umbrella that could do much to assuage Israeli fears of nuclear Iran. They might also show Israelis that cooperation with the Arab world is a realistic possibility; and they might create a situation in which either Netanyahu or the Prime Minister after him could present Israelis with a strong argument that solving the Israel-Palestine conflict would increase rather than compromise Israel’s vital security needs.