Ever since the speech by US President Barack Obama at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, construction in the West Bank settlements has become the focus of political attention in both Israel and the world. The clear, even blunt position of Obama is: “Freeze it!” This has been received in Israel with astonishment, as if a freeze were totally illogical. The Netanyahu government answered by unsheathing the “understandings” that Ariel Sharon had achieved, supposedly, with the Bush administration, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there had been any. Israel then responded by claiming that construction was needed to accommodate “natural growth”; here the expansion of the settlements was presented as a humanitarian act, meeting the basic needs of the residents: living quarters, day-care centers, synagogues and other public buildings. But this time, in contrast with days of yore, the Americans did not back off. They knew the long history of Israeli subterfuges that had served as cover for the enormous settlement expansion since the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Taking the American side, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Tzipi Livni, was quick to accuse Netanyahu of superfluously creating an impediment in US-Israel relations. In April, we recall, when Netanyahu asked Livni and her party to join his government, she rejected his bid because he had refused to commit to the principle of “two states for two peoples.” She took the position that the border between the states, as agreed to by the Palestinians in their talks with her, would anyhow leave the settlement blocs in Israel’s hands. Yet without commitment to a two-state solution, construction in those blocs would be hard to justify.
Netanyahu understood the message. In his Bar Ilan speech, intended as his answer to Obama, he came out for a Palestinian state. However, he took pains to present certain principles that eliminated any real possibility for its coming into existence: Palestine, he said, must recognize Israel as a Jewish state; it must be demilitarized (this implies not only the lack of an army, but also lack of control over borders and air space, and no possibility of forging alliances); and, finally, the dropping of all demands that the refugees be permitted to return to Israel. He pledged to expropriate no further lands for settlements, but he pointedly omitted any mention of a construction freeze. It is no wonder that the Palestinians rejected these conditions. The Americans, however, tried to make the best of the speech, while continuing to push for an Israeli commitment to stop construction in the settlements.
As expected, Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech did not get anything started. On the contrary, Foreign Secretary Avigdor Lieberman, in a press conference with Hillary Clinton, enunciated Israel’s outright refusal to freeze construction. The result followed quickly: a scheduled meeting with America’s special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, was canceled.
After the Israeli Foreign Secretary had burned his bridges with the US (and not only with the US: consider French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recommendation to Netanyahu that he fire Lieberman), Defense Minister Ehud Barak was sent to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. This journey led to negotiations on a temporary freeze. Yet once again, Israeli preconditions torpedo any chance that this will happen. In return for the temporary freeze, according to the local press (Yediyot Aharonot and Haaretz, week of July 2, 2009), Israel demands a commitment by the Arab states to normalize relations; Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; and the promise that a future Palestinian state will be demilitarized. In short, the Palestinians are to forfeit all their bargaining chips in return for a temporary freeze on Israeli settlement construction, and with no commitment on Israel’s part to withdraw to the 1967 borders or dismantle even one illegal outpost.
An Israeli commitment to a construction freeze in the settlements would enable Washington to jumpstart a political process within the Palestinian Authority (PA), aimed at bolstering the shaky position of its president, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The radical elements in the Arab world, and especially Hamas (which has ruled the Gaza Strip since its bloody ejection of Abbas supporters in 2007) see no reason for concessions as long as Israel’s right-wing government abides by its refusal. True, both Arab extremists and moderates welcomed Obama’s Cairo speech, but they raised questions about his ability to influence, saying, in effect, Let’s see you translate words into action.
A commitment to freeze construction could result in the breakup of the present Netanyahu government; meanwhile, the PA is already divided, leaving Abbas no authority to reach binding agreements. Recently the reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, conducted in Cairo under Egyptian mediation, collapsed for the umpteenth time. With American assent, Abbas avoids renewing the negotiations with Israel because of its refusal to stop settlement construction, and at the same time he hardens his positions toward Hamas. For its part, Hamas demands liberty for 800 of its supporters imprisoned by the PA in the West Bank, as a condition for an agreement that will enable new presidential and parliamentary elections in January 2010.
Obama is operating on two fronts. On one he presents Netanyahu with hard choices, and on the other, he exerts enormous pressure on Hamas, demanding that it forgo armed struggle and accept the Oslo agreements. In this context we may understand the green light given by Washington to the establishment of a new Palestinian government under Salam Fayyad, whom it trusts (and whom Hamas detests). Likewise, we can understand why Washington exerts no pressure on Israel to lighten the siege of Gaza.
The intention is clear: America seeks to prevent, at all costs, a (likely) Hamas victory in the next elections. It doesn’t want to repeat the mistake of 2006, when Hamas won – and instead of moderating its positions, used the victory as a springboard for taking over Gaza and strengthening itself in the West Bank. If Hamas desires new elections, it will have to recognize the legal framework on which the PA is based. One plays by the rules or one does not play.
But Obama stands before two leaders who refuse to play by the rules. One refuses to recognize Israel, the other refuses to recognize Palestine. The first is Khaled Mashal, head of Hamas, and the second is Binyamin Netanyahu. Both would endanger their political futures by accepting the American conditions. Thus we find a strange common interest between the two, each using the other’s existence to justify non-entry into a process aimed at ending the conflict.
Obama too has a lot to lose. The Republican opposition is waiting for him to slip. But let us suppose that his plan were to work: Hamas agrees to forgo armed struggle and play by the rules, and Israel freezes construction in the settlements – what then? Now arises the question: what does Obama have in mind when he says “two states”? He has indeed proclaimed his commitment to a Palestinian state, but he is also committed – and this above all – to Israel’s security. If so, then what kind of Palestinian state are we talking about? What kind of sovereignty will it have? Will it enjoy territorial contiguity? What will be done with Jerusalem? What will be the fate of the refugees? Given America’s strategic commitments to Israel – and given Obama’s silence concerning these questions – we cannot but worry that he basically accepts the Israeli version of a Palestinian state, a version that empties it of all content.
Obama’s basic problem when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the same as his problem when it comes to America’s economic issues: he is trying to bring about far-reaching change within a failed framework. His apparent inability to go outside the box – global capitalism on the one hand, and the Oslo agreement on the other – is likely to be his nemesis. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a solution within a new strategic framework. Here Israel must no longer be the dominant player, rather one among the nations of the region. It must no longer occupy the land of others, but must gain acceptance on the basis of its readiness to respect the sovereignty of its neighbors, including Palestine.