Why Martin Indyk is wrong

The former US ambassador to Israel explained what happens "when your best friend gets angry." We should remind him that anger is a bad counselor.

April 23, 2010 16:47
4 minute read.

Indyk. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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In a recent opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune, former ambassador Martin Indyk takes Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to task for supposedly resisting President Barack Obama’s attempts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Resolving the conflict, argues Indyk, is an American strategic priority, vital to American interests. By refusing to accede to Obama’s demands, Netanyahu jeopardizes those interests and thus Israel’s standing as an American ally. Netanyahu has to make a choice between alienating “those ministers in his cabinet who oppose peacemaking” and alienating the United States.

Indyk’s argument is flawed. It is true that American-Israeli relations are under strain. It may or may not be true that resolving the conflict is material to other American interests in the region. What is not true is the assertion that what is at stake in the confrontation between Netanyahu and Obama is a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and that the Netanyahu government “opposes peacemaking.”

If Netanyahu were to accede to all of Obama’s demands – from freezing Jewish construction in Jerusalem to changing his government – it would not bring peace closer and would probably make the prospects of peace dimmer than they are today. True, it would make the Obama administration temporarily popular with the monarchs and despots of the Arab world. But it would not help the US achieve that resolution of the conflict which, Indyk argues, is America’s interest and the motive for Obama’s current policy toward Israel. It is not the policy of the Netanyahu government that jeopardizes that interest.

The conflict exists because the two sides cannot agree on the terms on which to end it. It will remain an irritant within the Arab world, and to Arab-American relations, until the Palestinians agree that the conflict is at an end. This gives the Palestinians a veto over the achievement of American interests in the region as the Obama administration currently formulates them.

HOW THE Palestinians are likely to use this veto can be learned from past experience. When Ehud Olmert was prime minister, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to recognize Israel as the Jewish state or to concede anything on the right of return. This means that the Palestinian position remains what it was before the Oslo Accords: Zionism and the Jewish state are illegitimate and must be eliminated.

The Obama administration claims that far-reaching concessions from Israel are required in order to bring Abbas back to the negotiating table. The Americans may bring him back to the table, but they aren’t doing anything, and probably can’t do anything, to ensure that a resolution of the conflict emerges there.

On the contrary, they are demonstrating that the Palestinians can achieve far-reaching gains by being intransigent, since they hold in their hands a mechanism that allows them to dictate American policy: Refuse to resolve the conflict, get the Arab world to complain to America that it’s all Israel’s fault, and elicit an American response that is not determined by the merits of the case but by the administration’s need to keep the Arab world happy.

The Obama administration’s demands from Israel are not simply confidence-building measures. They reshape Israeli-Palestinian relations in the latter’s favor without doing anything to bring about genuine rapprochement. They reward radicalism and intransigence and thus encourage further radicalism and intransigence.

By facilitating Palestinian intransigence, the Obama administration encourages the broader Arab world to play along with a strategy whose ultimate goal is the elimination of Israel. Far from facilitating the formation of an effective regional coalition against Iran, the administration’s current policy is likely to elevate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a distressing distraction to the main issue in regional politics. That does not serve American, nor Israeli, nor even moderate Arab interests. It only serves Teheran’s interests.

Some might suggest at this point that the Obama administration should encourage the Palestinians to give up those radical positions which make a resolution of the conflict impossible. This is probably useless. The Palestinians might say whatever the Obama administration wants them to say, but the administration cannot force the Palestinians to give up on their intention to perpetuate the conflict, now or in the future, on one pretext or another. The hard truth is that societies have to be psychologically ready for peace and reconciliation and until they are, peace is unachievable. The Palestinians aren’t ready yet and the Obama administration encourages them to believe that they need never be.

Martin Indyk warns that Israel’s American friend is angry. In response, friends should remind friends that anger is a bad counselor. However well-intentioned, American policy today is imprudent and likely to prove self-defeating. There is no question that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a burden on the region and on American policy. No good purpose is served, however, not even the cause of Palestinian-Israeli peace, by magnifying the significance of the conflict and allowing it to dominate regional affairs – or American-Israeli relations.

The writer heads the Israel Policy Center, whose mission includes reinforcing Israel’s character as a Jewish, democratic state.

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