Editor's Notes: Wanted: The PM’s vision for Israel

If Netanyahu continues to dodge specifics, various int'l players, US included, will intensify their efforts to impose their idea of a solution.

PM Netanyahu inspects Victoria weapons 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
PM Netanyahu inspects Victoria weapons 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Two Jews, three opinions. Forty-plus American Jewish leaders invited in to meet President Barack Obama more than two weeks ago, innumerable conflicting accounts ever since of what the man actually said.
And innumerable, conflicting assessments, therefore, of where exactly that positions US support for Israel, as the Palestinians take global strides toward declaring unilateral statehood.
As the region lurches from crisis to crisis, the orientation of the leader of Israel’s key ally could hardly be more crucial. Israel, in the prevailing international view, seems staggeringly to be often categorized alongside those unsavory Middle Eastern regimes that must be confronted, rather than appreciated as a bulwark against extremism and chaos. The global emphasis is firmly on the need to empower the Palestinians, however unreconciled they may be to Israel and however dangerous the price of their empowerment for a gutsy, tiny, regionally reviled Jewish state.
So what exactly did Obama tell the Jewish leaders? What is his stance on our place in the shifting, potentially still more treacherous new Middle East?
IT WAS a wonderful White House meeting, chorus some.
It was a terrible White House meeting, scream others. The president gets it about Israel, says the former group. He’ll never get it about Israel, counters the latter.
He committed America for the first time to supporting ongoing Israeli control of Jewish neighborhoods over the pre-1967 line in east Jerusalem. He did nothing of the kind, but he did make plain that Israel would have to relinquish Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
His plea for soul-searching by Israelis on the issue of territorial compromise stemmed from his stated concern, as a true friend, over the danger of Israel’s growing international isolation and the threat to Israel’s cardinal democratic and Jewish values. The demand for soul-searching betrayed his impatience with Israel, his naiveté over Palestinian intentions, and his misplaced assessment that Israel could enable substantive progress on the peace process if only it would stop dragging its feet.
He demonstrated unquestionable support for Israel. His positions on the peace process made starkly plain the limits of his support for Israel.
ON THE record, conscious of the contradictory reports that have followed the March 1 session, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the umbrella Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has insisted that “there was not one word of hostility” to be heard in the meeting, and that the president told his guests that America has no better friend in the world than Israel. Which is doubtless the case, but which does not answer the more relevant question of whether Israel deserves a better friend in the world than it has in Obama’s America.
Those who entered the White House believing Obama to be “good for Israel,” it rather seems, emerged reconfirmed in that belief, his comments filtered through their own world view. And those who thought he was a disaster before they went in felt reinforced in that dismal assessment by the time they came out, and thus deeply worried about the road ahead.
From what I can gauge, based on conversations I’ve had myself with some of the participants and the peerless reporting of our Washington correspondent Hilary Leila Krieger, that dichotomy is, unsurprisingly, a function of the Jewish leaders’ own diverse views of how Israel should be steering its course. Broadly speaking, those who largely or even partly blame Israel for the negotiating deadlock with the Palestinians and for the Jewish state’s growing isolation, empathize with the Obama overview. Those who predominantly blame the Palestinian Authority and a distorted, unreasonable international approach to Israel, feel this president is part of the intensifying problem rather than the solution.
Amid the welter of inconsistent reports from the session, however, it seems clear that Obama has high regard for Mahmoud Abbas, is impatient for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, strongly believes such progress can be made and thinks Israel must do more to achieve it – notwithstanding, or even because of, the regional turmoil and instability.
These presidential convictions, it would further appear, were met with understanding from some of those in the room, and considerable dismay by many others. They would certainly not have been music to the ears of the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem.
THE CONFUSED consensus in Israel doesn’t need the US or anyone else to tell it of the importance of finding an accommodation with the Palestinians – in order to end Israeli rule over another people, to ensure that Israel remains both Jewish and democratic, and to bolster a failing international legitimacy which in turn threatens to circumscribe our capacity to defend ourselves against our enemies.
That same confused consensus, however, is also a long, long way from certain that the Palestinian Authority constitutes a credible peace partner. The Israeli middle ground sees a Palestinian leadership, under Abbas, that remains formally insistent on territorial and refugee positions that prevent a viable peace deal; a leadership that stayed away from negotiations for nine of the 10 months that Netanyahu froze construction at settlements; a leadership that is trying to make up with Hamas; a leadership under whose aegis Israel is continually demonized; a leadership that could barely bring itself to condemn the horrific murders of the Fogel family of Itamar last Shabbat, and whose media has highlighted exculpatory conspiracy theories to dodge blame for the savagery those killings exposed.
The various regional uprisings re-emphasize a further mainstream concern in seeking an accommodation with Abbas. Even if – and it’s a mighty big “if” – Abbas and the PA can be considered true partners seeking reconciliation with the Jewish state, Israel must now also ask itself whether they are stable partners. We thought we had a partnership with Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. But after three decades, Mubarak was swept aside in two-and-a-half weeks of people’s protest. Abbas has already lost parliamentary elections to Hamas, has physically lost Gaza to Hamas and has theoretically lost legitimacy as PA president, having completed his term. Were we somehow able to reach a deal with him, and were he somehow to begin to implement it, we now also have to wonder how long he might be around to uphold it.
The prime minister, it should be noted, dithers not at the heart of this confused consensus, but toward its Right edge. He did endorse a two-state solution in his Bar-Ilan University speech two years ago, envisioning a Palestinian state with a Palestinian flag and a Palestinian anthem. He did publicly describe Abbas as his partner last September, and promised that Israel was ready to move a long way in a short time within that partnership.
But he has also striven to drive a harder territorial bargain than predecessors like Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and has always had a deeper attachment to the settlement enterprise. And Abbas’s relatively unforthcoming positions on territorial compromise, as made public in the “Palestine Papers” documentation, show that the gulf between the respective sides’ positions is even wider than was previously thought. The PA leader opposes Israeli annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim, objects to Efrat’s inclusion in a land swap, and seeks to restrict overall territorial adjustments to the pre-1967 lines to tiny proportions.
Word is that the Palestinians have actually hardened their positions still further since publication of the “Palestine Papers.” Even the relative progress those documents indicated in some areas, diplomatic insiders say, is no longer being endorsed by Palestinian officials in their contacts with the Middle East Quartet.
IT IS widely appreciated that Obama and Netanyahu have not exactly hit it off personally, and that the two administrations are somewhat mistrustful of each other. But the differences are more than superficial.
Netanyahu was always considerably more skeptical than his American interlocutors about Abbas’s peacemaking intentions and capacities. Today, on the basis of my understanding of Obama’s presentation to the US Jewish leadership, the skeptical prime minister is facing a president who considers Abbas to be an eminently viable partner and, moreover, a leader who can actually implement an accord.
Netanyahu is convinced that the Middle East’s various uprisings vindicate his longheld insistence on far-reaching security arrangements, including an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for the foreseeable future. Today, he is facing a president who sees himself as a friend of Israel but has no particular empathy for Israeli security fears about a return to the pre-’67 lines, and for whom the imperative to engineer Palestinian statehood largely outweighs sympathy for Jewish religious or historic claims to the West Bank.
Netanyahu may argue that the last thing Israel dares do today is take significant “risks for peace” in the unpredictable Middle East, with the further private concern that American support is less reliable than it has been for years, as underlined by the rapid abandonment of long-term ally Mubarak. Much of the rest of the world quite obviously thinks differently. Obama’s conviction is apparently that Israel simply must do its best to forge ahead, with America at its side guaranteeing its security, or find itself a pariah nation, resisting a regional push for freedom, that America will be hard-pressed to defend.
AS HE strives frantically to stay afloat in the rising tide of diplomatic pressure, reduced to eking out a few hundred settler-home building starts in the aftermath of the Itamar murders, it has been widely reported that the prime minister will be unveiling a deadlock- busting initiative in the next few weeks, with much speculation about a declaration in favor of an interim Palestinian state.
Personally, I rather doubt it. Netanyahu himself, as far as I can ascertain, has made no promise to deliver any kind of dramatic program. And even if he had been considering one, his inclination to unveil concessions must surely have been greatly reduced by the combination of widening regional instability, the hardening PA negotiating positions, the Victoria interception and its reminder of Iran’s vicious ambition, and, most of all, the sheer inhumanity evidenced in the murders at Itamar.
Several senior people with whom I’ve spoken in recent days, furthermore, strongly doubt that Netanyahu has any kind of new, dramatic formula in mind. One of them indicated that Netanyahu’s game plan is to somehow muddle through the next few months, minimizing the damage of the Palestinians’ push for statehood at the UN General Assembly in September, navigating the Quartet’s impossible deadline for a deal by that same month, and keeping the US administration from imposing anything too unpalatable by November, at which point it will be a year until the presidential elections and Obama will have his hands full.
I would ask the prime minister directly about all this, of course. But Netanyahu, unlike any prime minister in recent years, has steadfastly refused since taking office to be interviewed by this newspaper. He has refused to be interviewed by most other Israeli newspapers, less fair-minded than this one, for that matter. He evidently prefers presidential-style public statements, shortish TV interview spots, and talking to certain foreign reporters who he may feel will ask him less searching questions.
WHAT NETANYAHU should most usefully determine, and then outline in a high-profile address, however, are Israel’s territorial red lines. Ideally, he would do this in consultation with the leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, who should have joined his government at its outset – so that, together, they could have sought to reflect the mainstream consensus in formulating policies and positions.
Without her, he has the more straightforward task of setting out his own. If he honestly believes that Israel must retain all or much of Judea and Samaria in perpetuity, he should say so. He should acknowledge that his Bar-Ilan agenda has been superseded, that his thinking has to be modified because of new concerns about the Palestinian leadership and/or the instability of our region.
If he honestly believes in significant territorial compromise, he needs to say that, too – but to put some meat on the theoretical bones. It is long past time to present a map, to set out at least his opening negotiating position. Tell us, tell the world. Must the Jordan Valley be annexed, or held in some long-term but not permanent arrangement? Which other West Bank areas are to be annexed, and which, however painful, is he prepared to relinquish? Where, and according to what formula, is he prepared to trade land from inside today’s sovereign Israel?
Beyond the headlines, he needs to explain why he holds to these positions – to elaborate, in the context of the Jordan Valley, the nature of the threats from further east; to articulate, in the context of territorial sticking points, the vulnerability of narrow Israel to a potential Gaza-style terror takeover in the West Bank.
He should do all this for several reasons. For one thing, he owes it to the electorate. The prime ministerial vagueness has endured for far too long. Why are we allocating resources to areas the prime minister does not intend to retain? Why are people being encouraged to live in those areas, to move to those areas (a particularly painful and pertinent question in the wake of the killings at Itamar)? Or, again, if there is to be no territorial compromise in his vision, he must tell us that, too.
His people’s right to know is paramount, but the international context is critical too.
There is no shortage of reasons for Israel’s abiding public diplomacy failures. They range from the refusal to invest the necessary resources at home, to demographics abroad: It takes a politically suicidal politician in most countries where Muslim voters greatly outnumber Jewish voters – and much of Europe falls into this category – to stand up for Israel.
But at the heart of Israel’s difficulties in setting out its narrative is that it has no unifying narrative. And any advertising executive will tell you that it is difficult to market a product whose basic features are unclear.
For an uncertain electorate, in an increasingly unsympathetic international climate, with a US president who does not seem to believe that regional instability is making it harder for Israel to take risks and who does not share Netanyahu’s doubts about Abbas’s suitability as a partner, facing a Palestinian leader bent on rapidly achieving statehood unilaterally, Netanyahu needs to present, detail and argue the logic of his positions.
AT THE General Assembly last September 23, Obama urged the parties to “draw upon the teachings of tolerance that lie at the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem’s soil as sacred.” He pleaded that “we should reach for what’s best within ourselves.
“If we do,” he said, “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
Since that will not be the case, Obama and the international community will be looking for an alternative plan. Whose plan would Netanyahu like it to be?
According to at least some of the participants in the White House meeting, the Israeli-Palestinian accord the president apparently has in mind follows the familiar patterns of the Clinton parameters of 2000 or the Olmert offer of 2008, which are anathema to Netanyahu: an Israeli return to the 1967 lines with limited land swaps; Palestinian control of Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Israeli control of Jewish ones; some sort of non-sovereign or sharedcontrol arrangement for the Old City; and no significant influx of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
If so, that only underlines Netanyahu’s imperative to set out for his people and the rest of the world his vision of Israel’s basic, essential dimensions.
Otherwise, the various international players – the hostile, the friendly and the ignorant alike – are simply going to intensify their efforts to impose their idea of those basic dimensions on him. And on us all.