Changing Israel's initiative at the negotiating table

Bibi’s speech was an eloquent rebuttal to Obama, but was ultimately not conducive to the world’s vision of reconciliation. It would have been wiser therefore, for the PM to make the same points within the context of international anticipation of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu speech 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Netanyahu speech 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Friends of Israel as well as Israelis themselves feel tremendous satisfaction when watching an Israeli leader deliver an articulate exposition of Israel's political position before a world audience. Be it Abba Eban, Haim Herzog or most recently, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the combination of immaculate, unaccented English with coherent and cohesive rhetoric is always a winning one.
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Netanyahu's speech before both Houses of Congress served a number of functions: It bolstered the American Jewish community’s confidence in the rightness and justice of Israel's cause. It reinforced the incentive of members of Congress to support a pro-Israel policy that would have the overwhelming support of the American Jewish community while remaining true to American values and patriotism. The speech’s third function was to indicate to President Barack Obama that unfairly pressuring Israel will invariably be met with Congressional (or certainly Republican) opposition.
And therein lies the rub. In the US, foreign policy is carried out by the executive and not by Congress. Notwithstanding Congressional opposition, an unfriendly president and secretary of state can make life miserable for Israel. But however friendly they are towards Israel, senators and Congressmen may not take kindly to being used by a foreign state as a pawn in its confrontation with the president.
This is certainly true of Democratic members of Congress who, to a large extent, depend on the popularity of the incumbent president in their reelection bid. A foreign leader who attempts to maneuver and manipulate between Congress and the president would be wise to do so in the same way that porcupines make love - that is very, very carefully.
After the euphoria surrounding his speech dissipated, Netanyahu found himself in the cold morning light still facing the "Palestinian problem.” The US president still calls for Israel’s withdrawal to a border based on the pre-1967 line with mutually agreed swaps, and it doesn’t look as if either he or anyone else can be convinced otherwise. In over forty years, this position has not wavered and reflects a near international consensus.
If the Palestinians request UN General Assembly recognition of statehood, the outcome is foregone - they will receive surely receive it. The political capital Israel is expending in trying to get a handful of states - out of two hundred UN members - to abstain at the UN, seems hardly worth the effort. Keep in mind that a UNGA vote has no legal power and neither can the Assembly create a state or determine borders. The Palestinians cannot have a border with Israel except by negotiation with Israel.
So instead of fighting the inevitable, it might be in Israel's interests to welcome the creation of a Palestinian state but to insist that borders cannot be determined unilaterally. Netanyahu eloquently pointed out Israel's security needs, the centrality of Jerusalem and the fact that borders have to take into account the developments of the last fifty years.
It might, however, be politic to make these points in the context of welcoming a Palestinian state instead. Sometimes the wisest policy is to follow the adage that “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.” Negotiating with a Palestinian state over borders that would be secure and recognized might be a better prospect for Israel than trying to convince a reluctant world to oppose the very creation of a Palestinian state.
If an initiative on Israel’s part results in actual border negotiations for a Palestinian state, there is a much stronger chance that the Jewish state will receive considerable international support for its other positions, including the refusal to transfer Jerusalem’s Jewish suburbs over to a Palestinian state.
The bottom line remains that taking the initiative is almost always an advisable strategy in both resolving issues and gaining support along the way.
The writer teaches international law at the Hebrew University and is the former legal adviser to the Israel Foreign Ministry.