Yesterday, at the UN Bibi Netanyahu scored a major victory for Israeli rejectionism. He beat Barack Obama at his own game. He beat someone who until this moment had been thought of as a political master. He beat someone who American observers thought would finally bring an intransigent Israeli prime minister to heel. Bibi won. Don’t let any other Obama supporters or progressives like Daniel Levy or J Street tell you otherwise:
A number of J Street supporters have asked me [Jeremy Ben Ami] in the past few hours both what happened to the settlement freeze and whether the events of the past 48 hours amounted to anything more than a “photo op.”
I’ve urged them to take another look. We are actually very pleased to see the President put the focus on final status issues, and, in fact, view the week’s events as a sophisticated pivot by the White House from debating the minutiae of settlement construction to addressing the core issues at the heart of the conflict.
This is simply wishful spin. Today is a very dark day in the history of Israel-Arab peacemaking.
Today, Obama gave up on the freeze. Bibi simply outlasted him. And Obama judged that either he didn’t have, or was unwilling to expend the political capital to force Bibi’s compliance. The administration is attempting to paint a rosy portrait and say: “OK, we failed on the freeze. So let’s get right to final status talks.” That’s all well and good. But Bibi is riding high. His coalition is strong. He is relatively popular. He just faced down an American president who isn’t very popular in Israel. Why would the Obama people think that Israel will be any more forthcoming? And given what the Arab states now see, why would THEY be willing to help Obama out of this situation?
Mr. Obama, unable to extract that concession from Israel or other confidence-building moves from Arab states, seems intent to press Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate all the difficult issues between them toward a final deal that has eluded negotiators, and bedeviled American presidents… The pivot toward tackling issues that include the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state greatly increases the stakes for an administration that has found even small advances to be beyond reach. It also risks making Mr. Obama appear ineffective in having not gained a tangible early goal of his Middle East policy.
Daniel Levy is quoted in this article spinning this development as a positive:
“They are blocking off his escape hatches,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “They’re saying, if you can’t do the interim, then we’ll do the final status.”
That’s all well and good. But I simply have not seen any ability on Obama’s part to move Bibi in a direction he doesn’t want to go. Unfortunately, there is only one way to do this.
Obama has several options, all of which are politically painful and could lead to failure: he can decide that he will get a final status agreement at whatever cost it takes; or he can decide he simply doesn’t have the balls/will/stamina to do it. If he goes the former path, he will have to rally an international coalition to enforce an agreement on the parties (though most notably the Israelis). He will have to endure a possible painful drop in support from the American Jewish leadership and those who follow their dicta. Not to mention tremendous opposition from Israelis themselves. Does Obama have both the leadership and courage to take this Lincolnesque path? Can he weather the fire and brimstone that will be hurled at him? I don’t know.
The other option is for Obama eventually to throw up his hands and say he tried, but just couldn’t succeed. This might look like the more attractive path since despite the loss of face in abandoning a major initiative of his presidency, he could at least save his political capital for domestic issues which might be more at the heart of his political agenda and ensure his re-election.
But if this president gives up on solving this conflict (of course Obama would never put it that way, but we’ll know it when it happens), it will essentially leave Israel to its own devices. Yes, it will still have American support. But all of Israel’s opponents will be emboldened. The Palestinians and Arab states will see that the world has abandoned them. They will realize that the only way to end the Occupation is, as Malcolm X used to say, “by any means necessary.” Then all the gloves will be off. Resistance of all forms, violent and non-violent, will be ratcheted up.
One of my worst fears is that the ultimate result will be the end of Israel as we now know it. And in case any reader chooses to distort what I’ve said let me make clear that this is not an outcome I welcome. But Israel under Bibi Netanyahu has just told an American president and the world that he knows what’s best for the Middle East and that he can impose Israel’s will on the U.S. and his enemies. This effrontery will not stand. Maybe it will stand for a month or a year. But Israel, if it maintains this attitude, will eventually be humbled. It will lose. And when it does, those who might have felt sympathy previously will not feel any. Israel will be left to its own devices and its enemies will have more control over its fate than it will.
It will remind us all of Jeremiah’s widow sitting disconsolate in the symbolic ashes of a Jerusalem we once knew. She will be keening for the state of Israel that used to be. Certainly, there will be an Israel though it might be called that or something different. Israel’s residents will remain. But their form of government will not be one of their own choosing, at least not willingly so. I have always advocated that Israel come to embrace true democracy and become a state of all its citizens willingly. But I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion after today that such an evolutionary process of moving toward the good may not be possible. Maybe the only thing that can bring real change is a disaster like the one that befell Jeremiah’s Judea.
Will it come to this? Lord, I hope not. But if Obama fails, what else can happen? I simply don’t believe all the Arabs of the Middle East will sit back and allow Israel to have its way. Bibi and many Israelis may live under the delusion that this is possible. But it isn’t. The chickens, again quoting Malcolm, will come home to roost.