Israel’s Drive toward Self-Destruction – Dennis Ross and David Makovsky and Ghaith Al-Omari – POLITICO Magazine
In the old game of chicken, two cars race toward each other and at the last second one veers away to avoid a collision. Today, the Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in a new game of chicken but as they accelerate toward each other, they have missed the reality that there is a gorge between them and they are each in danger of driving off the cliff. If there is a task for American diplomacy now, it is to try to get each off their self-destructive path.
For Prime Minister Netanyahu, his hard right tack in the campaign won him the election in Israel and lost him the world. President Obama’s obvious anger and unwillingness to accept Netanyahu’s effort to walk back his campaign statement on there being no Palestinian state so long as he was prime minister did not create his problems internationally but certainly has added to them. Indeed, fair or not, it is an unfortunate reality that few on the global stage believe Netanyahu is committed to trying to find a way to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians.
As a result, the efforts to de-legitimize Israel internationally will now have new momentum.
The prime minister is surely right about the profound danger that a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel, but Israel’s next government also needs to treat the de-legitimization movement as threat to Israel’s existence. It is, after all, about trying to deny Israel’s right to exist.
One problem with the White House’s reaction to Netanyahu’s comments is that it will feed not just the de-legitimization momentum but it will make the Palestinians feel free of any obligations. The onus will be on Israel, Palestinians can push the campaign against Israel at the International Criminal Court and other international fora, and nothing will be expected of them. Unfortunately, none of these steps will advance the day that Palestinians see an end to Israeli occupation or the emergence of their state. And, that will deepen the frustration of the Palestinian public which sees a gap between what its leaders claim and what they produce on the ground. That frustration is made all the worse when they see the conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas paralyzing any efforts to rebuild a devastated Gaza—a reality that according to Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki, has deeply undercut support for President Mahmoud Abbas among Palestinians.
Israel needs to take an initiative to counter the de-legitimization movement and show it is not the reason that nothing is possible on peace. Ironically, such an initiative might also shift the onus onto the Palestinians and move them off the position that all the responsibility for the conflict is Israel’s and they need do nothing. In addition, it could also convince the Obama administration that it need not proceed either to support or draft a U.N. Security Resolution laying out the parameters for a permanent status deal, especially because Israel was acting to alter an unsustainable status quo.
The question is how to get Israel to take the first step. That should be the U.S. objective at this point. This is not the time to try to resume peace negotiations, when the disbelief on each side is so great and the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians has never been wider. To be sure, if the White House wants to move the prime minister to take a step after he forms a government, challenging his word in public won’t make that more likely. Rather, it ought to cool the public rhetoric and privately convey that the U.S. ability to help Israel internationally now requires an Israeli move that lends credence to the prime minister’s words. Even an administration more well-disposed to Netanyahu would be hard-pressed to convince the international community that he was serious about two states in the aftermath of his campaign statements.
So what steps could Netanyahu and the new Israeli government take to give the administration and its friends something to work with? They could declare that they were going to make Israel’s settlement policy consistent with its two-state policy: meaning that Israel would only build in what it thinks will be Israel not in what it thinks will be part of the Palestinian state. In other words, Israel would not build in the 92 percent of the West Bank that is outside what Israel currently defines as the settlement blocs. Even if Netanyahu thinks that a two-state outcome cannot be implemented soon, he can at least show he will not act to make it more difficult to produce it. If he would also allow the Palestinians to build in parts of area C—which makes up 60 percent of the West Bank—that would boost the Palestinian economy and show the Palestinian public that the possibility of change remains.
Netanyahu will want something in return from the Palestinians or the United States. The Palestinians could turn away from internationalizing the conflict and commit anew to a negotiated outcome. In addition, President Abbas could agree to take over the crossing points in Gaza—something the donor community, the Israelis and the Egyptians have held is the key to opening up Gaza for the movement of reconstruction materials and even people into the Strip. Ironically, this matters to the Israelis because they understand that if the pressure within Gaza is not reduced, there is bound to be another explosion and renewed warfare.
But creating these steps, which could jump-start a process, won’t happen by itself. The United States will need to set it in motion. At this point, Netanyahu needs to blunt the de-legitimization movement, Abbas needs to regain some semblance of trust from his own people, and we need to foster a virtuous cycle between Israelis and Palestinians. Pressing for a quick return to negotiations—or a Security Council Resolution that will trigger long discussions in New York and likely be ground down in the .U.N Cuisinart—will yield none of these results. But focusing on practical steps could do so and move the Israelis and Palestinians off their self-destructive trajectories and in a far more hopeful direction.