A Breakthrough?


Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to a further three-month settlement construction freeze in the West Bank (but not Jerusalem) while he and Abbas try to nail down final boundaries for a new Palestinian state. It appears he has a majority in his cabinet to approve the deal:

The deal includes a U.S. undertaking not to request a further extension of the freeze, and to veto any attempt by the Palestinians to win UN recognition of their state unilaterally...

An Israeli political source said the security cabinet vote was expected later this week and that seven ministers - Netanyahu among them - were likely to back the U.S. proposal, against six who would vote against and two who would abstain. The forum includes representatives of major coalition partners, from the center-left Labor party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Netanyahu's rightist Likud to the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The $3 billion bribe is contingent on a successful two-state agreement, and is designed to assuage Israeli security concerns:

The Obama administration would also ask Congress to approve a $3 billion sale of warplanes to Israel and, should there be peace with the Palestinians, guarantee its wider security needs. These would supplement the 20 F-35s Israel already plans to buy for $2.75 billion drawn from annual grants it gets from Washington.

So Obama's implicit willingness to take this to the UN was the stick added to the $3 billion carrot. It hasn't been an easy process, and Obama has had to allow himself to be humiliated to get this far. But we know that Obama's modus operandi is often to give his opponents a tactical victory, as long as it advances his own strategic goal. Bernard Avishai compares Obama's tortuous, humiliating approach in the peace process to his health insurance reform strategy:

The administration has been criticized for allowing Senate committees to debate the shape of the healthcare bill before committing itself to a final plan. The process was ugly; and the administration sweetened the outcome for resistant blue-dogs along the way. In the end, however, it got senators who had skin in the game, and it used their disagreements to define the "solution space" in which to intervene. And once (as Jonathan Cohn has shown) Obama saw the shape of the bill he could get, he still had to choose: let it go, for political reasons, or campaign for it, for historical ones. Had he not chosen the latter course, we would not have had a health reform bill at all.

Something like this moment is now in the offing in the Middle East. What the administration has done is allow Netanyahu the equivalent of (forgive me) pork to bring the Israeli state, so that the most critical issue defining a Palestinian state can be brought into relief. Israeli ministers most vociferously opposed to any state are justifiably in a panic (a "honey-trap" says Moshe Yaalon). Like Republicans who had hoped to kill any reform in committee, they are not so much convinced that they have lost the game as understand that now they are in one...

Ensuing negotiations, over the next couple of months, will almost certainly not produce an agreement. But they will define the solution space Obama will have to move into and the line he will have to publicly fight for. It will tee-up perhaps the most important foreign policy test of his presidency, and set up the right moment to visit Jerusalem. As with President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis--who had previously been thought weak, but proved how shows of strength require a sense of timing--it may be Obama's best chance to reignite the global hopes invested in him.

Maybe Netanyahu will have to forge a new coalition with Kadima to have this work. But it looks as if he can squeeze it by his current cabinet, which is preferable. The more right-wing a government that agrees to a two-state solution the better for the boundaries' future legitimacy. And so Obama fitfully but persistently moves toward his central goal for the next two years. A first term that brought universal healthcare to the US and a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict would be quite something, wouldn't it? Even the lefty complaint chorus might be able to muster a few cheers for that.

(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speak with the media prior to their meeting November 11, 2010 in New York City. The two were expected to discuss the rift over settlements in Arab East Jerusalem and other Mideast peace issues. By Mario Tama/Getty Images)