Previously strained US-Israel relations have turned “toxic,” in the words of former US secretary of state James Baker.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election assertions are unlikely to be forgotten by Israel’s strongest ally, which has been committed for decades to the policy of two states for two peoples. While the US is currently reevaluating its options on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a pressing question remains: What can Netanyahu do in order to placate the White House and begin repairing this vital relationship? 1. Verbal reassurances. Few people expect politicians to tell the whole truth, but Netanyahu’s pre- to post-election U-turn may have exceeded expectations. Three days after declaring to the Israeli public that a two-state solution would not happen on his watch, Netanyahu told a US news channel, “I don’t want a onestate solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
For US President Barack Obama, deciding what to believe doesn’t seem to be a challenge. On Netanyahu and the two-state solution, Obama said, “We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership.”
In addition, following Netanyahu’s apology to the Arab citizens of Israel for his offensive election day remark that the Arabs were voting “in droves,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough remarked, “We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made.”
The power of verbal reassurances and apologies is likely to be limited while the White House believes that Netanyahu’s actions do not match his rhetoric, and that his rhetoric, at times, does not even match itself. Nonetheless, Netanyahu would do well to repeatedly emphasize his support for two states, delivering the same message to international and Israeli audiences.
2. Coalition building. With the value of words in question, actions are going to speak volumes. The composition of the next Knesset will indicate how flexible Netanyahu’s government can be with regards to addressing core issues and implementing policies reflecting the final goal of two states.
Netanyahu seems poised to set up a coalition with Kulanu, together with right-wing and religious parties.
However, reports suggest that Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon may prefer a more centrist coalition. Negotiations over who will comprise the new coalition are just beginning and in this dynamic region it is conceivable that a more centrist government could be formed, one that consists of parties that are prepared to enter into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
In summary, a centrist government is likely to bring more legitimacy to Netanyahu in the international community, whereas a more right-wing coalition is likely to further deepen the US-Israel rift.
3. Policy. Only through policies will Netanyahu be able to convince the world that he is serious about a peace process. Of all policies, a settlement freeze is the clearest indication of Israel’s intention to advance a two-state solution.
The US has a longstanding opposition to settlement activity and has continually criticized settlement expansion. Although there is no talk of a freeze, in 2009, Netanyahu did agree to a 10-month partial settlement freeze, as a result of US pressure.
The freeze brought Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table, but negotiations broke down when Netanyahu refused to extend the freeze and Abbas refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Although a total settlement freeze would do more than ruffle the feathers of the majority of the Israeli electorate, a partial freeze not including the main settlement blocks and Jerusalem may be a feasible option. With the next government, Netanyahu may have more leeway on settlement issues with the pro-settler Bayit Yehudi holding only eight seats.
Support of annexation of some West Bank territory is supported by some Likud officials and is a key policy of Bayit Yehudi. On the Monday following the elections, in a surprising preemptive warning, McDonough stated that the US would never support annexation of the West Bank and that such an action would be “wrong and illegal,” thus implying that annexation policies would have serious ramifications for the US-Israel relationship.
In a bid to ease tensions, Netanyahu recently declared he will be returning the Palestinian Authority tax revenues that Israel has been withholding after the Palestinians joined the International Criminal Court. This move will certainly be welcomed by the US, but it may simultaneously be viewed as a transparent diversion tactic.
In a press conference a week after the election, Obama specified that the policy difference between himself and Netanyahu is when it comes to the need to establish a Palestinian state.
Thus, whether a policy short of a settlement freeze and the resumption of negotiations can mend the US-Israel relations is doubtful.
There are many ways that the White House may reassess its policies towards Israel and the peace process. Some of these may leave Israel more alone than ever in the international legal arena.
In this current climate, it should not be taken for granted that the US will consistently use its veto to counter UN Security Council resolutions damaging to Israel. The White House may also increase utilization of the media, delegitimizing Israel among US citizens and the international community, intensifying global efforts such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.
The US will not be investing efforts in another round of lackluster negotiations.
Obama made this clear when saying, “We can’t pretend there’s a possibility of something that is not there or premise US diplomacy on something everyone knows isn’t going to happen.”
Unless the new coalition takes significant steps on the Palestinian issue, some of which are outlined here, Israel can expect to face a more coercive approach from the US, in its bid to further the two-state solution end-game.The writer is a research assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies.