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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What the times require

Writing in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, Yossi Klein HaLevi sets out a prescription for Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama to work together. The prescription includes realism about what the 'peace process' can attain, building within the 'settlement blocs' that Israel expects to retain under President Clinton's December 2000 parameters - but not outside them, and setting aside differences to focus on thwarting Iran's nuclear aspirations. While I'm not happy with all of his ideas, if politics is the art of compromise, this prescription is definitely artistic.
The first prerequisite is genuine realism in Washington regarding negotiations with the Palestinians. It will be tempting in the coming months to blame Mr. Netanyahu -- who has refused to commit himself to a two-state solution -- for the absence of a peace agreement. But that breakthrough would have eluded any Israeli government. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, couldn't have tried harder to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

Instead of continuing to pursue the unattainable, the American-Israeli approach should focus on creating a civil society in the West Bank that is an essential precondition for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. Mr. Obama will find a ready partner in Jerusalem for improving economic conditions in the West Bank. That process would present the Palestinians with a stark choice between their two territories: the beginnings of prosperity in a peaceful West Bank, or devastation in a jihadist Gaza.

Inevitably, the most sensitive issue in managing the American-Israeli relationship will continue to be settlements. Under President Bill Clinton's December 2000 Middle East peace plan, settlement blocs like Gush Etzion near the 1967 border would be retained by Israel in an eventual agreement. Indeed, no Israeli government will stop building in those West Bank blocs.

The tacit agreement between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, then, needs to be American acquiescence in continued building within the highly populated settlement blocs, in exchange for Israeli restraint in building beyond the blocs. The Netanyahu government has a mandate from the Israeli public to act decisively against any security threat, and to resist international pressure for premature peace agreements. But it doesn't have a mandate to resume massive settlement expansion across the West Bank.

The Israeli Jewish public that voted overwhelmingly for right-wing parties did so primarily for security reasons. The Israeli right of 2009 is a mood, not an ideology. And Mr. Netanyahu understands the expectations of his voters. During the election campaign, he spoke incessantly about stopping a nuclear Iran and the jihadist threat generally -- not about settlement growth. However grudgingly, Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners will likely accept some limitation on settlement building. And the presence of the Labor Party in the coalition will ensure moderation on the settlement issue. Indeed, the small National Union party is the only right-wing party that places massive settlement building at the top of its agenda, and it will not be part of this coalition.


America and Israel should emulate the new Israeli government's single-minded focus. This is not the time to be distracted by what are, for now, secondary issues, like eventual Palestinian statehood. Nor should disagreements between Israeli and American intelligence agencies over the pace of Iranian nuclear development distract the two governments from their agreement over the danger posed by a nuclear Iran. By focusing on thwarting Tehran's nuclear ambitions, the U.S. and Israel will find Arab allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That dynamic is already creating a shift in regional alliances, and could eventually lead to a real Middle East peace process.
Read the whole thing. Note that the focus on realism is shared by Eliot Abrams, John Bolton and Dan Pipes. But all of them felt compelled to move into the realm of final settlement - which is surely a mistake at this point in time. Is Klein-HaLevi advocating putting final settlement aside for now? Or is its absence in this article just a reflection of the limited format? While I like the focus on being more realistic about what's attainable, so long as this conflict is existential, no settlement will be possible because no compromise is possible.

The fact that the Obama administration is - unfortunately - unlikely to adopt such limited goals is a separate issue. The Netanyahu-Barak government should be pushing for this kind of working arrangement - at least for the time being.


At 6:36 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Israel would be happy to work for such limited goals but if Israel is told to refrain from attacking Iran or is pressured to pre-determine the future of Judea and Samaria in advance of a negotiated settlement, it will reject both even if it involves a heavy cost. While Israel will seek to do its best to avoid a conflict with the US, it will not agree to commit national suicide to facilitate the Obama Administration's new outreach to America's and Israel's enemies.


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