Editor's Notes: The battle for Europe

For all that Netanyahu raged against Obama’s flawed vision, the president’s effort to draw Europe away from a ‘yes’ vote for Palestinian statehood is certainly in Israel’s interest. And Israel is deluding itself if it fails to internalize how far Europe has tilted toward "Palestine."

US President Obama with UK PM Cameron 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
US President Obama with UK PM Cameron 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Warmth, supportive laughter and applause – from the first sentence to the last. More than two dozen standing ovations. Smiles and handshakes and embraces before and afterward.
A solitary heckler apart, the prime minister won the kind of adulatory reception in Congress 10 days ago that he could not dream of receiving in any sizable political forum in Israel. He wouldn’t feel that kind of love at a big gathering of his own Likud Party, never mind his parliament, where he is lucky if he can get through a few sentences without hostile interruption.
And he did so with a speech that was quite vague on what his government is prepared to do to advance Palestinian statehood, and long and detailed in explaining his concerns about the hostility all around Israel, his reservations about our ostensible Palestinian peace partner, and his consequent objections to some of the formulations that had been unveiled five days earlier in President Barack Obama’s landmark Middle East policy speech at the State Department.
His rhetoric was far too sophisticated as to bluntly oppose Obama’s ideas. It was less obviously confrontational than some of the remarks Netanyahu had made when sitting alongside the president in the Oval Office four days earlier. But it was, nonetheless, plainly a speech pushing back against core aspects of Obama’s stated policy.
And since it garnered that spectacular response from the legislators of America, that must count for quite a lot, no? Presumably, the Palestinians will have been given pause in their campaign for unilateral support for statehood. Presumably, some of Israel’s less receptive international critics, notably in the Middle East Quartet, may feel the need to ease their pressures a little. Presumably, the president will have to do some rethinking...
Not a bit of it.
The Palestinians never doubted the scale of congressional support for Netanyahu. They’ve always known, moreover, that the US will almost certainly veto any efforts they make to win binding support for unilateral Palestinian statehood at the Security Council. That’s why they developed their strategy for seeking approval from the General Assembly; there, backing for their plan to establish a state without legitimizing Israel is automatic, big and though nonbinding, creates momentum, and the US has no veto power.
Neither will the members of the Quartet, for their part, have paid much heed to Netanyahu’s glorious day in Congress. The UN, Russia and the European Union have long since endorsed “Palestine” in principle. Where Europe in particular has been wavering is over whether to do so in the General Assembly in September despite that patently absent Palestinian reconciliation with the country next door, or whether to abstain or vote no, insisting, as the US insists, that the path to statehood must run via negotiations with Israel.
Many in Europe have considerable sympathy for the concerns that Netanyahu set out last week. Many in Europe are disappointed in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – for failing to reverse Yasser Arafat’s distortion of history and delegitimization of Jewish sovereignty, for staying away from the negotiating table, for Fatah’s new partnership with Hamas. But many, too, are disappointed by what they regard as Netanyahu’s grudging approach to compromise, his disinclination to swing further to the center and away from the hawks, and his ongoing settlement construction, no matter how reduced in scale. There are few signs that Netanyahu’s speech swayed them.
As for the president, he was gone by the time Netanyahu made his appearance before the joint congressional meeting. Obama had flown off to Europe where, the next day, he reiterated all the key elements of his new vision during a press conference alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron. And Cameron, arguably the pivotal figure in how Europe reacts to the September Palestinian statehood gambit – with Germany perceived to be siding somewhat with Israel and France, somewhat, with the Palestinians – was careful not to make any firm commitment as to how Britain might act.
“We don’t believe the time for making a decision about the UN resolution – there isn’t even one there at the moment – is right yet,” Cameron said. “We want to discuss this within the European Union and try and maximize the leverage and pressure that the European Union can bring, frankly, on both sides to get this vital [negotiating] process moving.”
So, well-spoken Prime Minister Netanyahu. Seriously. You brilliantly detailed the complex challenges facing Israel. But what, precisely, are you going to do about them?
OBAMA IS already on the case. The president’s European journey, in fact, constituted the next stage of his bid to avert what is being widely described in diplomatic circles now as the “looming train wreck” of the General Assembly. And if there are those, in Netanyahu’s circle and beyond, who regard Congress’s enthusiastic reception as constituting some kind of warning for a president at such open odds with the prime minister, a signal that Obama needs to change tack, then the president’s strategy has clearly been unaffected.
As I mentioned here last week, the administration is pursuing an approach that indicates a certain double standard: It has chosen not to press Abbas specifically to abandon the unconscionable demand for a “right of return” – the crucial Palestinian concession to Jewish sovereignty, without which there can be no viable two-state solution – because it does not want to “box in” the PA president, weaken him and lose him. This despite the fact that the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been perpetuated precisely because the Palestinians and those who spoke for them have never been prepared to come to terms with Israel’s right to exist. Moreover, Abbas, far from demonstrating that he is the man to finally reverse that rejectionism, has now entered a cynical partnership with the most avowed rejectionists, the Islamic extremists of Hamas, to create a veneer of unity in order to hoodwink the willfully blind among the international community that the Palestinians are all sitting happily together awaiting endorsement for statehood.
At the same time, in sharp contrast to its kid-glove treatment of Abbas, the administration has chosen to press Netanyahu specifically to withdraw to an amended version of the 1967 lines – the crucial Israeli concession to Palestinian sovereignty – with no evident concern as to whether this might box him in, weaken him or lose him. The administration, then, is markedly more concerned about “losing” Abbas than it is about “losing” Netanyahu.
Analysts have often tried in the past couple of years to figure out who is steering the president down his Israeli-Palestinian blind alleys – who it was that pushed him, first, to so obsessively focus on the settlements and now, to unveil a half-drawn vision of negotiation in which the required Israeli concession is spelled out and the required Palestinian concession merely intimated. But it is clearer now than ever that this is Obama’s own mindset. He is not being directed by the whisperings of this or that senior aide in his ear. He and he alone, by all accounts, chose to tack on the Israel- Palestine section of his speech, just a day before it was delivered, and had his secretary of state telephone Netanyahu to announce, rather than to coordinate it.
This is a president quite certain that he is acting in Israel’s best interests, committed to protecting a Jewish, democratic, pre- 1967 Israel, and not largely empathetic to Israeli security, historical or religious claims beyond those lines. This is a president who, as a candidate during his visit to Israel in 2008, told me that “Israel may seek ’67- plus and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.” This is the president who last week described the matters of borders and security – the future, that is, of Judea and Samaria – as “perhaps less emotional issues.” This is a president reasonably anticipating reelection and unmoved by congressional ovations for Netanyahu. This is a president who apparently continues to believe that he understands Israel’s interests better than the current Israeli prime minister does, and that he gauges Palestinian and Arab attitudes to Israel, and thus the potential path to reconciliation, more accurately than Netanyahu does.
But this is also a president who appreciates that the Arab upheaval is producing a “1948 moment” – an empowerment of regional opponents not to Israel’s presence beyond the 1967 lines but to Israel’s presence, period. This is also a president who recognizes that much of Europe is far more empathetic to the Palestinians than the United States has hitherto been. Anxious to encourage Europe not to vote for “Palestine” in September, this is also a president, finally, who is convinced that the way to achieve this goal requires sounding tough on Israel and gentle on the Palestinians.
WHY DOES Europe matter? Because, in the UN context, it is the barometer of international legitimacy. Where Israel is concerned, there will always be majority support from the Islamic states and their supporters for hostile positions, and a minority defense from the likes of the US, Australia, Canada, certain Eastern European states, small Pacific island states and far too few others.
Europe holds the middle ground. Europe’s position in September will determine whether a General Assembly vote for Palestine generates a vastly intensified boycott and sanctions effort and creates a sense of legitimacy for violence against Israel, or whether the vote becomes as irrelevant as previous such campaigns for statehood.
That is why Obama’s strategy is now one of negotiation with Europe, in order to reach agreed parameters – to be formally endorsed by the Quartet, perhaps, or even put to the Security Council – that will lead to “responsible” nations abstaining or voting against “Palestine” at the General Assembly or that will derail the Palestinian GA gambit altogether.
Israel, troubled by Obama’s outlook, may well say no to such parameters, if they are indeed set out; doubtless the Palestinians will too. But there are no Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in prospect anyway, and this way, runs the administration’s thinking, another 18 months or so will have been “bought,” with the “train wreck” minimized.
Another 18 months, in the Obama overview, to get past the Palestinian elections and hope to see the Islamists marginalized, to get past the American elections, and hopefully get past some Israeli elections as well. The world will have set out its agenda, pressuring both sides, and protecting the negotiation option for a happier day.
No specific peace proposal Netanyahu could have set out in his speech to Congress would have been treated seriously by the Palestinians. Let’s make this clear: The Palestinians long ago abandoned the negotiating track. This was plain from Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s written agenda for statehood – a work plan that featured no emphasis on reconciliation with Israel. It was evident in Abbas’s refusal to come to the table for nine of the 10 months in which Netanyahu froze settlement construction last year. It is obvious from the Fatah-Hamas agreement. It is explicit in the strategic decision to turn to the UN General Assembly.
But the more Israel can credibly demonstrate that it wants to enable Palestinian statehood if only the Palestinians are ever prepared to genuinely come to terms with Israel, the greater Israel’s capacity to retain international support and to deflect the intensifying international temptation to endorse the Palestinians’ nonnegotiated approach.
Abbas’s deal with Hamas, his dishonest New York Times op-ed, his radicalized language about refugees – all of these damage his credibility in the US, in Europe and beyond. But Netanyahu’s credibility is damaged too – because he has still not tackled illegal West Bank outposts (unless Thursday’s action at Alei Ayin marks a shift in policy), opposes any formal compensation program for residents of isolated settlements who want to relocate, has done nothing to build homes for any such relocating settlers, and because, despite his carefully vague hints of readiness for far-reaching territorial compromise, he is still allocating resources to settlements in all parts of Judea and Samaria.
However aggrieved we may rightly be at the distortions and the hypocrisies that prevail when Israel is being judged internationally, they are only getting worse and they carry concrete, practical implications. Since we feel strongly that we seek peace with a partner who doesn’t, since we feel strongly that our narrative is accurate and compelling, since we feel strongly that our readiness to meet a genuine partner more than halfway is heartfelt, we should be doing everything we can to make it difficult for the international community to be fooled into thinking otherwise. And vague generalities won’t work.
FOR ALL that Netanyahu raged against Obama’s vision, and for all the acute concerns about its flaws, the president’s effort to draw Europe away from a “yes” vote for Palestine is certainly in Israel’s interest. And Israel is deluding itself if it fails to internalize how far Europe has tilted toward “Palestine.”
Only a little over three months ago, on February 18, the Security Council voted 14- 1 in support of a resolution that demanded that “Israel, as the occupying power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect its legal obligations in this regard.” The sole dissenting vote, of course, was that of the US – the veto.
Germany, France and the United Kingdom did not merely vote for the resolution, however. They also delivered a joint statement to the Council via Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the British Permanent Representative to the UN. The language of that statement is indicative of the challenge that Israel faces at the UN, gives a very broad hint as to where European sympathies lie, underlines the problematics of an Israeli approach that does not specify our security and territorial needs and other red lines, and explains why Obama sees an imperative to try to negotiate agreed parameters with Europe.
“Thanks to work commended by the international community as a whole,” the European trio’s UN statement declared in its closing sentences, “the Palestinian Authority has developed the capacity to run a democratic and peaceful State, founded on the rule of law and living in peace and security with Israel. Further delay will reduce, rather than increase, the prospects for a solution. We therefore look to both parties to return to negotiations as soon as possible on that basis. Our goal remains an agreement on all final status issues and the welcoming of Palestine as a full Member of the United Nations by September 2011. We will contribute to achieving that goal in any and every way that we can.”
That phraseology certainly keeps all options open for September. But it already contains a degree of endorsement for “Palestine,” an unfounded assertion that Israel and the US would certainly contest about such a state’s peaceful nature, and a reference to the need for negotiation that is offset by a recommitment to the September deadline.
An overwhelming GA vote in favor of Palestine may well be unavoidable. A UNGA vote in support of Palestine backed by “responsible” European nations would be a blow to Israel of a whole different order.
It would be seen as legitimizing a radically intensified boycott and sanctions effort. It would be interpreted by extremists here as providing something of a green light for violence and terrorism against Israel. It would bolster momentum for legal warfare against Israel, including via the International Criminal Court in The Hague. (If the Palestinians are seen as a state, not merely by predictably sympathetic nations but by “fair-minded” nations too, the ICC would be more likely to seek to acquire jurisdiction for prosecuting alleged Israeli crimes in the West Bank, including as relates to settlements.) And it would emphatically bolster mass, unarmed “Arab Spring”-style protests – the kind Israel failed to face down on a small scale two weeks ago, and the kind it may well already begin to encounter on a larger scale from Sunday.
None of this is to say that Netanyahu failed Israel with that virtuoso performance before Congress last Tuesday. That speech – with its emphasis on the Jewish connection to Judea and Samaria, and on Palestinian statehood not hinging on Israeli compromise but on Arab recognition of Israeli legitimacy – set out contextual basics with passion, dexterity, clarity and flair.
But it did not free the prime minister of the obligation to use astute diplomacy to head off the September “train wreck.” It did not free him of the obligation to show, not just to tell, that Israel is ready for peace, and that it is the Palestinians who are not.
Obama and his hierarchy should have consulted more effectively with Netanyahu and his hierarchy ahead of the State Department bombshell speech. Obama should by now have better internalized the likely counterproductive fallout when he takes positions that press Israel more dramatically and more tangibly than the Palestinians – he merely hardens the Palestinian stance and reduces Israel’s confidence in his administration.
But Netanyahu should have long since given the international community more to work with. He and opposition leader Tzipi Livni should have long since put aside their narrow interests and built a mainstream unity coalition that could formulate widely consensual policies.
The Palestinians don’t want to interact with Israel? So be it. But let Israel interact with the international community, detailing Israel’s needs, setting out a vision, and taking credible practical steps on the ground in support of that vision.
That way, when “responsible” nations take sides, as they will be asked to do just a few months from now, on a pernicious Palestinian effort to achieve global support for their state without being required to abandon policies that call for the destruction of ours, those key nations can credibly appreciate what is at stake: that our concern is not with a Palestinian state, but rather with a Palestinian state that endangers Israel.