Far from advancing his policy regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, President Obama's hastily cobbled-together summit in New York last week simply exposed that policy's weakness. Obama expressed impatience with "talking about talks," but that's exactly what Israelis and Palestinians will start doing this week.
In his address to the UN General Assembly, Obama reiterated his view that Israel and the Palestinians should wrap up their century-old conflict in the next two years, but his words merely served to underscore the increasingly evident gap between Obama's rhetoric and reality.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can be justly proud of his management of Israeli-American relations since he entered office six months ago. At that time, Obama tried to position himself as, at best, equidistant between Israel and the Arab world. Since then Netanyahu has demonstrated that the Jewish democracy is far and away America's closest ally in the region, the most attuned to the values shaping American policy and the most willing to accommodate that policy within the constraints of Israel's own interests.
Nevertheless the time has come to put more distance between Israel's policy and an administration policy that clearly isn't working.
OBAMA'S SUMMIT will likely lead to endless talks, but not to genuine negotiations. The two sides are simply too far apart, starting with the fact that Israel recognizes the Palestinians' right to govern themselves but the Palestinians aren't prepared to concede an equal right to the Jewish people. Obama almost certainly cannot spare the time and political resources needed to initiate meaningful negotiations and nurse them along.
Given the slim prospects of the president's policy working, the most likely scenario is that the administration will quietly let Israeli-Palestinian relations slip into stalemate. The Palestinians will continue to avoid the necessary hard choices. George Mitchell will continue to discuss a settlement freeze, content that the freeze continues as long as discussions continue. This may serve Obama's and Mahmoud Abbas' short-term interests but it doesn't serve Israel's interests.
Israel has rights and interests in Judea and Samaria. The Oslo process, which began 16 years ago, was predicated on bracketing those rights and not insisting on them, in hopes that this would facilitate peace. This turned out to be a strategic mistake, as most compromises of principle are. It encouraged the Palestinians to believe they could get by without acknowledging Israel's rights, and could try to convince the world that Israel has no legitimate rights.
Israelis have an interest in bringing their conflict with the Palestinians to an end, but this interest isn't served by allowing the Palestinians to pretend that Israeli rights don't exist. Israel should be working to realize its rights and interests on a day-to-day basis. Its policy should be directed to achieving a settlement that accomodates them, which means making the Palestinians acknowledge them.
The first step is to note that there is a world of difference between claiming one has security interests in Judea and Samaria and asserting that Israelis are there by right. A good summary of Israel's rights can be found in Supreme Court Judge Edmond Levy's dissent in Gaza Coast Regional Council vs. Knesset (2005). Judge Levy's opinion is a fundamental Zionist document.
SEVERAL ISRAELI cabinet ministers are going on a coast-to-coast hasbara tour of the United States this fall, and they should emphasize Israel's rights, and not just its security concerns. They should prepare American public opinion to accept that Israeli policies based purely on diplomatic expediency have proved disastrous, and that henceforth its policies will be focused on asserting its rights.
The second step is to make clear to the Palestinians that they are going to have to acknowledge the Jewish people's legitimate rights - starting with their right to a sovereign state in Eretz Yisrael. Continued Palestinian intransigence should cost them dear in terms of assets and interests. Israel should make clear that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria exist by right, that they are not about to disappear, and that they will continue to expand, on vacant public land and on privately owned Jewish land, until a treaty demarcating Israeli and Palestinian rights in Judea and Samaria is negotiated and signed.
Israel has promised the United States a "temporary settlement freeze" as a means of kickstarting genuine negotiations, and it should not go back on its word. But neither should it allow endless negotiations to turn a "temporary" freeze into a permanent one, freezing any real prospect of a resolution of the conflict.
Prime Minister Netanyahu should immediately declare the start of a six-month "freeze," excepting essential public buildings, in the settlements. At the end of that time, if the Palestinians have yet to come around, Israel should adopt a policy that asserts its rights while penalizing the Palestinians for not acknowledging them.
The writer heads the Israel Policy Center, whose mission includes reinforcing Israel's character as a Jewish, democratic state.