Analysis: Could unilateralism be the key to securing Israel's future?

Netanyahu seemed to imply that if the international community showed greater understanding for Israel’s security needs, Israel might be able to set new borders with Palestine unilaterally.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares a joke with US President Barack Obama during their meeting in the Oval office of the White House, in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares a joke with US President Barack Obama during their meeting in the Oval office of the White House, in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In his early November trip to the US, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touched on all the big issues: Iran, Israel’s place in a turbulent region, funding to help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge, mending fences with an American president with whom he has long been out of step and measures to better manage the smoldering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In short, how Israel and the Obama administration, still smarting from Netanyahu’s no-holds-barred campaign against the president’s prized Iran nuclear deal, could cooperate to ensure Israel’s long-term future.
Netanyahu, sometimes facetiously dubbed “the Republican Senator from Caesarea” because of his perceived preference for the conservative side of the American political divide, used the trip to butter up President Barack Obama, whom he effusively thanked several times for his staunch support for Israel, and the Democratic Party as a whole through an invitation he secured to address the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning, pro-Democrat think tank. There, to a polite ripple of applause, he declared that it was imperative that Israel remain a consensual, “bipartisan issue.”
And, more importantly, in the hour-long Q-and-A session that followed, Netanyahu gave the clearest exposition to date of his thinking on the Palestinian issue, explaining why, in his opinion, negotiations were stuck and how he thought the deadlock might be broken.
On the Iranian issue, now that the nuclear agreement is a done deal, the prime minister has clearly decided to move on.
Throughout the visit he took pains not to repeat a word of his earlier stringent criticism.
Instead, in his meeting with Obama, he focused on what he thinks needs to be done to hold the Iranians to their commitments under the deal. He also spoke of the need for action to block Iranian terror in the region and to subvert Iran’s international terrorist network. We must “hold Iran’s feet to the fire,” he declared at the CAP meeting.
Netanyahu’s other big regional concern is over the shape of a future solution in wartorn Syria and to what extent ISIS and Iran are able to pick up the pieces. Although it shares a common border, Israel was not invited to the late October talks in Vienna on Syria’s future or to the follow-up meeting in mid-November.
Israel is therefore reliant to a large extent on the US to protect its interests. In their meeting, Obama briefed Netanyahu on the latest international thinking, including US-Russian cooperation towards a war-ending deal. Netanyahu is anxious that any settlement should take Israel’s interests into account, for example not allowing the emergence of an Iranian proxy base on its doorstep.
He does not believe Syria will be able to function again as a single national entity; rather he foresees the emergence of a number of smaller, ethnic-based statelets, with which he hopes to achieve a modus vivendi – on the assumption that ISIS will be contained or defeated in the north and Iran denied a foothold in the south.
Given his concerns over Iran, Syria, ISIS and the wider regional turbulence, it is no surprise that the main focus of Netanyahu’s visit was on a new American military aid package for Israel. Despite his frequent run-ins with the prime minister, Obama remains committed to ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge: that is to provide it with the military wherewithal it needs to defend itself by itself against any regional threat or combination of threats.
The existing memorandum of understanding (MoU) authorized by President George W. Bush provides for around $30 billion in US military aid over a 10-year period and is due to elapse in October 2017.
Netanyahu is seeking a new upgraded $40 billion to $50 billion 10-year deal to run until 2027.
THE ISRAELI military has its eye mainly on cutting edge military technology, for example, more state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighters, V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, enhanced precision weapons, further development of anti-missile defense systems for incoming rockets and missiles from all ranges, as well as further development of tunnel locating technologies and cyber warfare techniques.
Obama, despite persistent maligning by the Israeli right, has proved himself to be a president who cares deeply about Israel’s future. He is committed to a generous military aid package to ensure Israel’s security, irrespective of personal animus or policy differences with any particular Israeli prime minister. Nevertheless, his forbearance with Netanyahu and his generosity also have a domestic rationale: to help retain Jewish support and funding for Democratic candidates in the upcoming presidential and national elections.
With the argument over the Iranian nuclear deal now on the back burner, the big abiding policy difference between Obama and Netanyahu is over the Palestinian issue.
Reconciled to the fact that there can be no progress in the near future, Obama does not want to see developments that could compromise a future two-state solution.
Therefore the administration is pressing Israel to take steps to help cool the current round of Palestinian violence before it gets out of control. Netanyahu has suggested a cluster of economic moves, including infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Palestinian building in Area C which is under full Israeli control. The Americans would like to see concrete moves on the ground that could help facilitate a two-state solution later.
Netanyahu, however, sees little chance for the two-state model in the foreseeable future.
In his CAP appearance he explained why.
First, Israelis, after their experience of withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, which in both cases were followed by sustained heavy rocket and missile bombardments, wanted to be sure that the same thing would not happen once a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank. In other words, there would have to be cast-iron security conditions in place to prevent such an outcome. The only way that could be achieved was through a continued Israeli military presence in the West Bank over an indefinite period, something no Palestinian leadership could accept. Therefore, Netanyahu concluded, on security grounds alone, there could be no negotiated two-state solution.
For Netanyahu, the security issue becomes even more difficult in light of wider regional developments. In his view, the root cause of the current turmoil is a clash between modernity Western style and a “primitive early medievalism,” most clearly characterized by ISIS, which could take decades to resolve. And, in Netanyahu’s book, this means the IDF needs to be deployed along the Jordan River border for the foreseeable future to contain a possible spread of the ISIS phenomenon.
In other words, the IDF must be on the Jordan River to guard against ISIS and in the West Bank to prevent Palestinian rocketing and tunneling. That means Israel retaining full security control west of the Jordan River, including in a future Palestine, again something no Palestinian leadership could contemplate. Bottom line, in current two-state thinking, Israeli security needs are incompatible with Palestinian independence.
Netanyahu, therefore, suggests an alternative model: civil independence for Palestine along with an internationally sanctioned foreign military presence, as in Germany and Japan after World War II, or in South Korea after the Korean conflict. He argues that this is the only way to maintain stability over time in both the Israel-Palestine and the wider regional contexts.
In Netanyahu’s view, if and only if the moderate Arab states and the wider international community recognize the need for Israeli security control in Palestine as the best guarantor of stability for all concerned and pressure the Palestinians to accept it, does a deal become possible. The challenge for Israel, Netanyahu says, is to get the notion of indefinite IDF military control over Palestine into the “international bloodstream.”
The trouble is Netanyahu knows that is not going to happen. He knows that, at best, Israel can hope for a staggered withdrawal over two or three years from the West Bank, and a limited fixed-time presence along the Jordan River. Waiting to get the need for an indefinite Israeli military presence “into the international bloodstream."
HERE, INTRIGUINGLY for the first time, Netanyahu raised the possibility of his taking unilateral steps to avert the binational nightmare and secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. “Unilateralism, I suppose that’s possible too,” he declared. “But it would have to meet Israeli security criteria and that would also require, I think, a broader international understanding than exists now.”
Netanyahu did not develop this startling throwaway line. However, the implication seemed to be that if the international community showed greater understanding for Israel’s security needs, Israel might be able to set new borders with Palestine unilaterally.
Unilateralism, however, can mean different things to different people. The major unilateralists in Israel, for example Blue White Future and Amos Yadlin, the Zionist Union’s candidate for defense minister in the last election, advocate the delineation of new temporary borders, coordinated primarily with and underwritten by the Americans. The IDF would remain in the West Bank as a security precaution, but also to give the Palestinians incentive to negotiate further IDF redeployment, permanent borders and internationally recognized statehood.
But there is also a far less ambitious version: small, unilateral steps by Israel to help improve conditions of Palestinian daily life, for example economic measures, easing restrictions on Palestinian movement or granting wider building rights.
No sooner had Netanyahu made his enigmatic unilateralism statement at the CAP, than Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Bayit Yehudi called him out: Any unilateral steps at this point, Bennett charged, would be a prize for terror. And, as a warning of what it might bring, he cited the Gaza model – unilateral withdrawal by Israel followed by Palestinian rocket and missile fire.
Netanyahu immediately backtracked.
What he had in mind, he said, were only small unilateral steps to ameliorate everyday life on the Palestinian side as a possible antidote to the current wave of Palestinian terror. Any major unilateral moves, like those envisaged by Blue White Future and Yadlin, would be a “big mistake,” he insisted.
All of which leaves Israel staring down the barrel of a binational future.
Obama is convinced that the two-state paradigm is the only solution for Israel and that Netanyahu is possibly the only leader who could pull it off, precisely because he comes from the Israeli right.
“For Bibi to seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can, precisely because of the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel, for him to seize this moment is perhaps the greatest gift he could give future generations of Israelis,” Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic in early 2014, when Israeli- Palestinian peace moves were at their height.
But today, after six years of parallel leadership with Netanyahu, Obama does not believe he will. Ever. Unilaterally or otherwise. As president he will provide Israel with the wherewithal it needs to defend itself, but with little hope for a breakthrough with the Palestinians that could change its regional standing.