As Netanyahu Gloats

It's been a great week or so for AIPAC, Netanyahu, the neocons and all those who desperately want to find reasons to avoid a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. Tom Friedman threw up his hands last weekend - but his analysis was, to my mind, far too even-handed. Money quote:

Israel, when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not “How much?” It is: “Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, what are you thinking? Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, offered you a great two-state deal, including East Jerusalem and you let it fritter away. Now, instead of chasing after Obama and telling him you’ll show up for negotiations anywhere under any conditions that the president asks, you’re also setting your own terms.

Notice that there is no parallel here in time. The Abbas rejection of the Olmert offer preceded Obama's term in office; the Netanyahu government's refusal to make any sacrifices or concessions to its indispensable ally occurred entirely during Obama's term of office. Moreover, the reason Abbas turned it down, according to George W. Bush, was because Olmert was being ousted from office because of a corruption scandal and Abbas was not sure he was negotiating with a leader who could subsequently deliver. That's important context for Friedman's alleged moral equivalence between the two sides under Obama.

Since 2009, the new leadership of Abbas and Fayyad has done nothing wrong, so far as I can see, except insist on a freezing of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem before they negotiate. Obama's critics have argued that this precondition was the error - not Netanyahu's intransigence. I really don't see this. No one can defend the settlements in the context of a two-state solution; to negotiate while you are aggressively moving the facts on the ground to maximize your leverage is not a clean negotiation. It's a negotiation where one side has an interest in stalling while it achieves its real end of permanent occupation and
colonization. Ending that construction is therefore essential to establishing a viable dialogue between the two sides.

Look: I'm not exonerating the Palestinians for their countless missed opportunities in the past. They bear real responsibility over the decades for their own plight. But when they change behavior - and Fayyad and Abbas surely have in constructing the backbone of a democratic state on the West Bank for years now - they deserve rewarding. And yet they are still treated almost as dismissively as Hamas, which, of course, has benefited greatly from its rival's inability to get any substantive concessions from Israel.

But there's no point in window-dressing this. After the mid-terms, Netanyahu was assured by his US operation (from Cantor and Cheney and Krauthammer on down via the Washington Post to McCain and Lieberman and Graham) that he could wait out Obama. He was so sure of it he even demanded written assurances of the massive bribes the US was offering to get even an extra three-month moratorium on construction. Obama's decision to give up this desperate tactic perhaps reveals he now understands just how cynical and self-serving Netanyahu is, even as he ponders what to do next. (Netanyahu recently asserted that all of Jerusalem would be Israel's for ever, meaning that he will never back a viable two-state solution.)

This is therefore a big win for the "pro-Israel" lobby, and it proves indisputably that in any serious contest between an American president and an Israeli prime minister, the US president doesn't have a prayer. He is emphatically the junior member of this "alliance." Netanyahu was right:

“I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

And so the whole possibility of outreach to the Muslim middle - a key pillar of the rationale for the Obama presidency - is in danger of being derailed by seeming proof of what so many Muslims in the world believe: that Israel occupies a unique place in global politics in being capable of directing the foreign policy of the alleged hegemon.

See, the Arabs and Europeans and leftists and Jihadists are now saying: "We told you Obama could not break through the anti-Muslim paradigm of American foreign policy. Because he is helpless in the face of Israeli power. He is Bush in camouflage - and if Obama is Bush in camouflage, there will never be a US president capable of being an honest broker." If you want to give a boost to the ideology and paranoia that fuels Jihadism, you couldn't have come up with a more lethal scenario.

But the US president is only helpless when he needs the Israelis' cooperation with the Palestinians, when he operates within the paradigm that has framed US administrations on this question for two decades.

He is not helpless in explaining and advancing the sane two-state solution everyone knows we need in the wider context of the international community. Today, Bob Wright proposes an obvious way forward past the intransigence of an increasingly radicalized and fundamentalist Israeli right and center:

The United Nations created a Jewish state six decades ago, and it can create a Palestinian state now. It can define the borders, set the timetable and lay down the rules for Palestinian elections (specifying, for example, that the winners must swear allegiance to a constitution that acknowledges Israel’s right to exist).

Establishing such a state would involve more tricky issues than can be addressed in this space. (I take a stab at some of them at But, however messy this solution may seem, it looks pretty good when you realize how hopeless the current process is.

Israel's international isolation is growing, which is why this approach may be more amenable to Israel's government than the nightmare of constant fruitless diplomacy. Bob:

This month Brazil and Argentina recognized a Palestinian state with 1967 borders. By comparison, a United Nations solution looks Israel-friendly. Borders could be drawn to accommodate some of the thickest Israeli settlements along the 1967 lines (while giving the new Palestinian state land in exchange). But perhaps the biggest advantage is the political cover this approach would give President Obama.

Sure, he’d have to endure some noise from America’s Israel lobby. But at least he’d have to put on his noise-canceling headphones only twice: (1) when he agreed to explore this path with other members of the “quartet” the European Union, Russia, the United Nations; (2) when the quartet, having produced a plan, handed it to the Security Council, at which point America would vote for it, or at least not veto it.

Yes, we can have a Middle East foreign policy that reflects America's goals and interests. Maybe the silver lining of Netanyahu's triumph is that it might become a pyrrhic one.

(Photo: Jim Hollander/Getty.)