By Carlo Strenger, Friday 20 May 2011 15.01 BST
Binyamin Netanyahu is angry, and it is easy to understand why. He is about to be the big loser in the diplomatic chess game against the Palestinians, who are building up momentum for a successful bid for recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN general assembly. He is running out of ways to prevent this move, which will enable the Palestinians to seek legal help over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Netanyahu is in a very unenviable position indeed. His own Likud party is largely much further to the right than he is. Most of its members reject the two-state solution, as can be seen by the open call by powerful Likud Knesset member Danny Danon for Israeli annexation of the West Bank as a countermove to a bid for recognition of Palestine. Even his speech in the Knesset in which he offered “painful concessions” but denied any possibility for compromise on Jerusalem caused him a lot of trouble in the Likud.
His coalition partners are at least as right-leaning: engaging with the Palestinians on the basis of the 1967 borders and a compromise on Jerusalem would lead to an open rebellion by his own party, and the dissolution of his coalition. Add to this that Netanyahu genuinely believes that the 1967 borders are indefensible, and you see that all he can do is continue stalling the peace process as he has since he came to power in 2009.
His trip to the US was intended to mobilise his last two remaining allies outside Israel: Republicans in Congress and the Jewish pro-Israel lobby Aipac that traditionally supports the policy of Israeli governments, whatever they may be. But Obama’s speech created a pre-emptive strike: whatever accolades Netanyahu will receive in Congress and from Aipac will be drowned by the headlines about the open conflict between Netanyahu and the administration.
Obama played his cards right: he wants to be re-elected in 2012, and any move seen as enforcing a non-negotiated solution on Israel will put him on a collision course with a strong Christian-Zionist constituency in the US that supports Netanyahu. It will also invite Aipac’s ire, even though Aipac no longer represents the majority of Jewish voters in the US.
But Obama also needs and wants to be seen as supporting change in the Arab world and the creation of a Palestinian state. Ergo, he expressed support for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. But he also made clear that he will not accept unilateral moves by the Palestinians such as seeking recognition for a Palestinian state at the UN. Officially he therefore rejects imposing a non-negotiated solution to the conflict on Israel.
So far the constraints are on what he can say publicly. His actual position seems to be somewhat different. He knows that, given Netanyahu’s political constraints and his worldview, chances for productive negotiations with the Palestinians are practically zero. He also knows that the Palestinians’ bid for recognition by the UN general assembly, where the US does not have veto power, is likely to receive more than two-thirds of the vote, probably including Britain and France.
Hence Obama’s strategy is quite rational: he lets the international community do the work of establishing the 1967 borders as a fact of international law without paying a heavy political price at home. He can step into the ring after his re-election, when he will have a much freer hand and will be able to argue legitimately that he is representing the international community.
The Palestinians are playing their cards right. While they officially showed some dissatisfaction with Obama’s speech, it does not create any real problems for them – they do not believe that there is any use in negotiating with Netanyahu’s rightwing government. Their current strategic goal is broad international recognition, and they will soon have embassies in most of the world. This will create a much stronger position for them in negotiations with a future Israeli government more amenable to compromise.
So Netanyahu is losing. But the real victims of his rightwing government’s disastrous policies are the people of Israel. The spectre of Israel’s ever-growing isolation and increasing international pressure on it looms large. As Israeli prize-winning historian and political scientist Zeev Sternhell writes in Haaretz, Israel is on the way to becoming a pariah state.
The tragedy is that Israel’s growing isolation and the Palestinians’ unilateral move could be avoided. Instead of fighting Palestinians’ bid for recognition, Israel should support it.
Israelis have an overriding and legitimate concern: they fear that the Palestinians really see the two-state solution as a two-stage solution; that they will continue to press for the right of millions of Palestinians to return to Israel after they have a state of their own, thus effectively turning Israel into a bi-national state. This fear is not unfounded, particularly since Hamas has so far refused to accept Israel’s existence and promises to use any means to wipe it off the face of the earth.
Paradoxically, Israel’s best strategy to defuse this concern would be to co-operate with the Palestinian bid for UN recognition – with a caveat. Israel could demand that recognition of Palestine within the 1967 borders be conditional on the Palestinians renouncing any further claim west of this border, a demand likely to be met by the international community and supported by the Arab League peace initiative.
UN recognition of Palestine along the 1967 borders is really in Israel’s interest, because it pre-empts the creation of a bi-national state, and would finally provide Israel with internationally recognised borders for the first time since its foundation.
Netanyahu’s rigid worldview and his struggle for political survival prevent him from taking a creative approach in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict; we Israelis will have to pay the price.