July 5, 2010

Obama, Netanyahu, and Middle East Peace

During his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu tomorrow, President Obama is expected to “focus on broad topics relating to an ultimate Middle East peace plan, rather than specific issues that continue to vex Israeli-Palestinian relations.” In other words, Obama is expected to talk about the “core issues”—borders, East Jerusalem, and refugees.[1]

Now being the smart man that he is (and I’m actually not being sarcastic here), Obama must realize that Netanyahu has no intention of compromising on these issues. Yes, Netanyahu has proposed granting the Palestinians a “state,” but it turns out that this “state” isn’t really a state at all. Under Netanyahu’s plan, the Palestinians would not be permitted to have an army, and Israel would retrain control of the area’s borders and airspace. Netanyahu has also made it clear that Israel will never relinquish East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and other parts of the West Bank.[2]

Although this non-state might sound reasonable to the likes of Avigdor Lieberman (provided, of course, that Netanyahu also agrees to “transfer” a good number of Israeli Arabs out of Israel), Obama—who, we’ve already established, is a smart man—must realize that it’s not reasonable to the Palestinians. Nor, for that matter, to the rest of the world, which has repeatedly voted in the UN General Assembly that Israel must (1) withdraw from “the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem,” (2) acknowledge that the Palestinians have “the right to self-determination and the right to their independent State,” and (3) resolve the refugee crisis in conformity with Resolution 194.[3]

So, assuming that he really wants to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama’s task will be to persuade Netanyahu to do what Netanyahu obviously has no intention of doing. Now how, you might be wondering, how oh how, can Obama accomplish this?

Martin Indyk, who served as US ambassador to Israel during the Clinton years, writes that the president must find a way to “overcome the mistrust” that has “permeated and poisoned their personal relationship and build a partnership for peace.” In order to accomplish this, Indyk writes, “Obama should invite [Netanyahu] alone to Camp David for an afternoon walk in the woods. For his part, since he models himself on Winston Churchill, Netanyahu needs to make a real effort to take Obama into his confidence, much as Churchill wooed Roosevelt in the run-up to America’s entry into World War II.”[4]

Such a touching scene there: Barry and Bibi walking alone in the woods. Perhaps, if time allows, they could even go for a picnic, maybe even find a nice spot on the green and watch the sun set.

Of course, such actions will do absolutely nothing to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. If Obama is really serious about doing this, then he would do well to listen to James Baker, who, in March, suggested how the president could curb Israeli settlement expansion: “I would…stress United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government. Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements.”[5]

Baker, of course, has the right to dole out such advice. In early 1992, he and President Bush I. told Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that they would freeze a $10 billion loan guarantee until Israel halted its settlement construction. “Israeli leaders told us they would just get the money from the U.S. Congress,” Baker recalls. “Our reply was, ‘We’ll see you on Capitol Hill.’” Baker and Bush ended up prevailing, as “[t]he Israeli public rejected Shamir’s ideological hard line” and in the June elections voted in Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party, which had “pledged to restore friendly relations with the United States.”[6]

If Obama applied enough pressure, he might be able to bring an end to Netanyahu’s coalition government, which in turn might pave the way for a Kadima-Labor government, which itself might be willing to make a reasonable offer to the Palestinians. Yes, there are a lot of mights there, and I’m not holding my breath. But if Obama really does want to resolve the conflict (and I think he does), and if he really is such a smart man (and we’ve agreed that he is), then perhaps—perhaps—it’s possible.


Notes
[1] Ali Weinberg, “Obama, Netanyahu meeting to avoid specifics, settlements,” First Read from NBC News, 2 July 2010.

[2] “PM’s Speech at the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University,” Prime Minister’s Office, 14 June 2009; Barak Ravid and Agencies, “Netanyahu: Israel will never share Jerusalem with Palestinians,” Haaretz, 12 January 2010; Jonathan Lis, “Netanyahu: Israel will never cede Jordan Valley,” Haaretz, 3 February 2010; “Netanyahu: Israel must have West Bank presence after peace deal,” Associated Press, 20 January 2010.

[3] “Responding to Avigdor Lieberman,” 29 June 2010; “Peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine (A/64/L.23),” United Nations General Assembly, 23 November 2009; “Following Two-Day Debate, General Assembly Adopts Six Draft Resolutions On Question of Palestine, Middle East,” United Nations General Assembly, 2 December 2009.

[4] “A quiet diplomacy on the Mideast peace path,” Washington Post, 2 July 2010.

[5] Akiva Eldar, “James Baker’s Advice for Obama on Forging Middle East Peace,” Haaretz, 23 March 2010.

[6] Ibid.; William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 2004, p. 501.

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