Men of narrow vision

The PM and DM must rescue the Israeli-Palestinian peace process before it is too late.

Prime Minister Netanyahu with Defense Minister Barak  (photo credit: Courtesy )
Prime Minister Netanyahu with Defense Minister Barak
(photo credit: Courtesy )
There was a time when both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak seemed destined for great things. As Israel’s silvertongued UN ambassador in the mid-1980s, Netanyahu dazzled seasoned diplomats and left Likud rank and file gaping in awe. Scattering his rivals like so much chaff, he became party leader at age 44 and, three years later in 1996, prime minister with the world at his feet.
Equally precocious, Barak, the most articulate and cerebral of IDF generals, ousted Netanyahu just four years after retiring from the military with a euphoric nation solidly behind him.
Both dramatically failed to fulfill their early promise. Netanyahu, in trying to reverse the Oslo process, ran afoul of the US and the “new day” Barak promised in the wake of his predecessor’s dark night never dawned.
Now more than a decade later, the two men are again running the country, this time as a team, with Netanyahu at the helm and Defense Minister Barak his closest and most trusted lieutenant. Sadly, past failure seems to have made them more adept at political survival than at the mature policymaking Israel desperately needs to ensure its long-term goals.
On the key issue of two states for two peoples, which will determine whether Israel survives as the Jewish and democratic state envisioned by the Zionist fathers, Netanyahu has won a string of brilliant tactical victories that add up to a major strategic defeat. By presenting conditions he knew the Palestinians couldn’t accept and Israeli “patriots” wouldn’t dare take issue with, he stalled the peace process and neutered the Israeli peace camp.
The result has been three barren years on the negotiating front, with most Israelis convinced the Palestinians are to blame for the stalemate. There has been hardly a peep from the main opposition peace parties, Kadima and Labor, both afraid to lose votes by voicing unpopular peace talk. This has created a vicious circle perpetuating the occupation and pushing the two-state solution further and further away to a point where it may no longer be attainable. Netanyahu’s shallow tactical success is Israel’s profound strategic loss.
The same goes for Israel’s relations with America. In May last year, US President Barack Obama pressed for reaffirmation of the 1967 borders with land swaps as the basis for territorial negotiations. Netanyahu balked, spelling out his reservations in a rousing speech to a receptive Republican Congress. With US presidential elections looming, Obama backed down, handing Netanyahu another tactical victory and Israel a double-edged strategic defeat: less American drive for the two-state solution and strains in Israel’s ties with the US Administration.
Early this year, after Netanyahu backtracked on the 1967 plus land swaps formula and the Palestinians failed to get the UN to impose a solution, the Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia) together with the Jordanians tried unsuccessfully to salvage the process.
They urged the two sides to present papers outlining their respective visions of future borders as a basis for reengagement.
But at the final session in Amman in late January, Israel’s chief delegate Yitzhak Molcho refused to submit anything in writing and the initiative petered out.
The way out So is the two-state solution dead? Not unless Israel decides to kill it off and with it the dream of a Jewish democracy.
On the contrary, there is now a great opening to make the two-state solution a reality.
When the Palestinians go back to the UN seeking recognition for their fledgling state, Israel should be the first to back them. It should agree to pull back from most of the West Bank, which, along the new lines and together with Gaza, would become the recognized Palestinian state.
To allay Palestinian fears that this would be the end of the process, Israel should also make a commitment to negotiate final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the refugee issue on a state to state basis.
Ideally, this would be done through a signed agreement with the Palestinians, building on the progress made in 2008 by Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.
Alternatively, and more realistically, it could be informally coordinated with the Palestinians, primarily through the Americans. In this case, both sides would make commitments to the US: the Palestinians on demilitarization; Israel on continuing to negotiate final borders and all other outstanding issues in good faith; both sides on resolving outstanding issues peacefully.
By taking these steps, Israel would put in place a two-state reality and reverse the current corrosive one-state dynamic. Most importantly, it would secure its supreme strategic goal: a democratic state with a Jewish majority unequivocally endorsed by virtually the entire international community.
Will Netanyahu take this course? Probably not, partly because it entails settlement evacuation, which would almost certainly bring down his current rightwing coalition.
As for Barak, he is long past pushing Netanyahu in the right direction. He too has been more concerned with political survival than doing what needs to be done. He could have pressured Netanyahu as head of Labor, but instead chose to split the party and retain the Defense Ministry, forfeiting whatever political clout he may have had.
Other omissions The foot-dragging on the two-state solution is not Netanyahu/Barak Mark II ’s only cardinal omission. They have done nothing to get more ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the army and/or join the labor force, without which experts say Israel’s economic growth will be severely stunted.
And they have done little to stem the tide of undemocratic legislation by the far Right, which, together with the ongoing occupation, fuels efforts to delegitimize Israel on the international stage, a situation that will only get worse if Netanyahu/ Barak continue to neglect the two state imperative.
For the past three years, Netanyahu and Barak have been focusing almost exclusively on the Iranian nuclear threat. But time for other equally dangerous existential challenges has not been standing still. As they peel their eyes for nuclear break-out in Tehran, they could miss the break-out points where the one-state dynamic becomes unstoppable, legislation for Haredim to serve and work is no longer politically possible, and undemocratic trends pass the point of no return.
There is a crying need now for a grand pragmatic secular coalition that would reverse the one-state dynamic by imposing a two-state reality, replace the Tal law with an arrangement that gets Haredim to serve and work; and block narrow nationalist trends by emphasizing wider universal values.
With or without elections, Netanyahu could lead it. Otherwise he could well go down in history as the man who shortsightedly derailed the Zionist enterprise, with Barak as his chief collaborator: Two men of great promise, two great patriots, who for narrow tactical gains, failed on the big strategic stage.