With all votes in, it looks virtually certain that Bibi Netanyahu will remain on the job as Prime Minister of Israel. That will be a big disappointment for some people, including the residents of the White House and a large sector of the American Jewish community who are pro-Israel but anti-Likud. It is also going to cause some pain for plenty of journalists who cover Israel in the American media, many of whom were ready to write Bibi’s political obituary just two days ago.
Bibi’s win is another in a long string of Middle East failures by President Obama and will add to the belief by both our friends and our enemies in the region that the costs of being Obama’s friend can outweigh the costs of his enmity. Egypt’s President Mubarak thought he was Obama’s friend; so did his successor President Morsi. The Syrian moderate rebels expected their friend in the White House to back them. The Zionist Union thought that promising to work more closely with Obama was the ticket to an electoral win in Israel. Meanwhile, as Bibi can now testify, those who defy this White House don’t seem to pay much of a price: just ask Syria’s Assad or, for that matter, his patrons in Iran. ISIS has more visibility and power in the Middle East than al-Qaeda ever did, while the Sunni Arab tribes of Iraq who saved America’s bacon during the surge and who counted on American influence to protect their interests in postwar Iraq are being overrun by Shi’a militias.
Here at TAI, we mostly avoid taking sides in other people’s elections, and we think our readers come to us more for analysis than for guidance about who to root for in political contests around the world. However, there is no denying that, while Bibi won the election convincingly, with the Likud Party winning significantly more Knesset seats than the polls or the pundits predicted, he didn’t win prettily. In particular, Americans are going to focus on his assertion that he will not support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem during his new term.
This is, of course, his right, but if this proves to be the long term position of the Israeli government, as opposed to a temporary pause in the peace process, it will have a chilling effect on U.S.-Israel relations that will outlast President Obama’s time in the White House. It will also deepen Israel’s international isolation and put useful weapons into the eager hands of Israel’s enemies in Europe and elsewhere.
The two-state solution has a long and hallowed history in American foreign policy. Harry Truman, the American President who recognized Israel’s independence, was a strong proponent of the two-state solution in the 1940s. The willingness of the Jews of British Palestine to accept the UN-sponsored partition plan, contrasted with the refusal of the Arabs of the country, helped give Israel the moral high ground in American politics for many years. Since Yasser Arafat renounced violence (however insincerely) and recognized (with whatever mental reservations) Israel’s right to exit, promoting a two-state solution has been the linchpin of American policy under Presidents of both parties, with George W. Bush very much included.
Not all American diplomacy in support of the two-state solution has been wise; much of it has been ineffective. More than one American President has made matters in the Middle East significantly worse by pressing the peace process too hard, too fast for an agreement that remains frustratingly out of reach. Few American administrations, much less the well-intentioned but often befuddled wannabe peacemakers in Europe who periodically traipse through the region, really understand just how difficult it will actually be to get what, superficially considered, seems like an agreement that would greatly benefit all sides. Fewer still really understand that, despite Israeli intransigence on various points, the most difficult task is to build the genuinely deep and long-lasting Palestinian national consensus needed for an agreement to stick.
There is a tendency among some hard-headed, hard nosed Israelis to look at the fecklessness of so many wannabe peacemakers and to measure the depth of America’s commitment to the two-state solution by the ineffectual nature of the strategies chosen to advance it. That would be a mistake. The belief that every people on Planet Earth has the right of self-determination is deeply engrained in American political and moral culture. Historically, supporters of Israel benefitted from this widespread American belief. That conviction cannot be turned on and off; support for the goal of a Palestinian state is a permanent feature of American politics. Americans are, I think, prepared to show some understanding both for the difficulties of Israel’s position and the problems caused by the deep structural issues within the Palestinian movement, but it would be extremely difficult to build a long term U.S.-Israeli relationship on the basis of the rejection of Palestinian national rights.
There is a minority of Americans, perhaps on the order of a quarter, whose support for Israel is strong enough (or theologically grounded in certain evangelical readings of Scripture) to embrace an Israel that sets itself openly against the goal of a Palestinian state. Other Americans are so worried about terrorism and radical Islam that they are willing to support Israel no matter what stand the Jewish state takes or doesn’t take on the Palestinian question. But there are enough Americans (and, additionally, enough American Jews) whose support for Jewish self-determination in Israel is linked to support for Palestinian self-determination in a Palestinian state that U.S.-Israeli relations will be significantly and progressively harmed if Israel’s leaders choose to close the door on Palestinian statehood.
This does not, Israelis need to understand, primarily come out of some pandering need to pacify Arabs by covering the American-Israeli relationship with a “peace process” fig leaf. Nor does it primarily proceed from sentimental philanthropy divorced from any understanding of the problems of the real world. It proceeds from the complex of ideas and beliefs about the world that have led so many Americans for so long to support Israel in the face of almost universal global condemnation. It will not go away, and over time its influence is likely to grow rather than to recede.
Achieving a Palestinian state will be difficult—much more difficult than successive American negotiators have ever really understood. Those difficulties are growing, and the problem is less about Israeli settlements (though these are a problem) than about the deepening divisions and dysfunctions in Palestinian society and politics. America will, I hope, over time become a wiser and more patient advocate of a Palestinian state than we have often been in the past. One can understand and even sympathize with the weariness and cynicism of Israeli officials who have watched us dance narcissistic and delusional peace process dances, with Presidents more focused on burnishing their “legacies” and winning a Nobel Prize than on the hard, slow work that can actually make progress. The Obama administration does not have the credibility with Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, or Saudis to play much of a constructive role at this point, and this incapacity has much more to do with White House errors than with Israeli opposition. Whatever Bibi does or doesn’t do, White House fumbling and Foggy Bottom overreach, combined with the diminishing authority of an administration moving into its lame duck phase, pretty much ensure that the next couple of years will not see much progress on the peace front.
But with all this said and acknowledged, Israelis need to understand that support for a two-state solution is not some left-wing fad or passing fancy in the United States. It represents the natural attitude of the American mind to this kind of problem, and both liberal and conservative, Republican and Democratic administrations will keep coming back to it. Abandoning the goal of a two-state solution and failing to develop ideas about how progress can be made in this direction, however tentatively, will continue to carry a significant and growing cost for Israel in American politics.
Rethinking and re-imagining the road to Palestinian statehood: yes. Taking a more sober approach to a problem that is much thornier than many outside the region have grasped: yes. Proceeding with caution when the whole Middle East is in flames: definitely. Thinking comprehensively about the problems of the Palestinian people as a whole rather than just those in the West Bank and Gaza: absolutely, especially now that so many Palestinians in Syria have been made refugees once again. Insisting that the vagaries of American political cycles and presidential legacy hunts no longer drive the pace and timing of Middle East negotiations: please.
If Bibi’s election message is that the peace process as we have known it needs fundamental change and reshaping, he is right. But if his intention is to kill it, or even to proclaim a moratorium during which Israel will create so many new facts on the ground that the concept of a Palestinian state no longer looks viable, then U.S.-Israeli relations will continue to cool.
Zionist history is in part the story of a rivalry within Zionism between Jewish leaders who believed that the movement’s best chances came from cooperation with English-speaking leaders and those who believed that the way to deal with both the Brits and the Americans was to confront them. Chaim Weizmann, who extracted the Balfour Declaration from the British and got a promise from Harry Truman that he would recognize an independent Israel, was an example of the former. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism who planned a war with Britain when that country moved away from its support for the Balfour Declaration, represents the latter. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s roots, despite his own fluent English and his deep understanding of American culture, lie in the more confrontational camp, and Bibi has often drawn on his inner Jabotinsky in confrontations with Obama.
Israelis will have to decide for themselves where their interests lie in these critical times. Let’s hope they find a way forward that keeps the doors of peace open and safeguards the foundations of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration needs to take a long hard look at the Middle East and ask itself why it keeps getting wrong-footed in this difficult region. Neither loved nor feared, the current White House has lost influence over old friends without replacing them with new ones. Just possibly, this is a time for American officials to think about their own policy problems rather than aggressively criticizing the choices that other people are making in an environment that our own missteps (by past administrations as well as by this one) have helped make more challenging than ever.