Early on in his first term, President Barack Obama suggested that in order to achieve peace between Israeli and the Palestinians, there needed to be more “daylight” between the United States and Israel.
Obama, according to a report on a meeting between the president and American Jewish leaders, said, referring to the Bush administration, “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
During Obama’s two terms in office, he made efforts to put daylight between his administration and Israel, and not just in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: in 2010 the administration harangued Netanyahu over a plan to build apartments in Jerusalem, the administration pursued the nuclear deal with Iran over Israeli objections, senior administration officials, on and off the record, have disparaged Netanyahu, and Obama is said to be considering a move in the UN to support Palestinian statehood.
Despite all this a final peace agreement does not appear any closer than it did in 2009.
Presumably, ties between Israel and a Trump administration would be warmer.
But two experts tell us that that may not be a good thing for Israel, or at least Netanyahu.
In an essay published last week in Foreign Affairs Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum and Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution argued that Trump’s friendliness towards Israel be politically disadvantageous for Netanyahu.
Although Netanyahu certainly isn’t the two-state solution’s biggest promoter, neither is he interested in creating a blatant one-state reality; he prefers to continue the status quo in which Israel controls the West Bank but does not officially annex it, gradually increasing the Israeli presence there while maintaining a veneer of openness to a two-state solution for some later date. The Obama administration has thus been a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Netanyahu to carry out his preferred policy without suffering the full wrath of the Israeli right.
With Trump, Netanyahu will likely no longer be able to paint himself as a bold truth-teller who stands up fearlessly to the powerful and hostile leader of the free world. Indeed, Netanyahu’s posture has been, throughout his years in office, one of a goalkeeper: skillfully deflecting high-speed penalty shots from Washington. But if no one is trying to score against him, he will be forced to change his game. He may have to actually answer the existential question of what Israel’s desired borders are and what its future relationship with the Palestinians living in the West Bank should be.
But the Koplow-Sachs argument is as flawed as Obama’s daylight argument.
Both assume that Netanyahu is the primary reason there is no final peace deal. In fact the idea that the Palestinian Authority is even a player in deciding whether or not there can be peace is thoroughly ignored.
The Peace Problem is in Ramallah, not Jerusalem
In May 2009, in what may be the most important article about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process under Obama, Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post looked at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s “Waiting Game,” in negotiations with Israel.
Diehl described Abbas as waiting for American pressure to force Netanyahu to agree to his peace terms. But Diehl then explained that Abbas’ attitude didn’t originate in a vacuum:
What’s interesting about Abbas’s hardline position, however, is what it says about the message that Obama’s first Middle East steps have sent to Palestinians and Arab governments. From its first days the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians: Until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel.
Obama, in contrast, has repeatedly and publicly stressed the need for a West Bank settlement freeze, with no exceptions. In so doing he has shifted the focus to Israel. He has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud. “The Americans are the leaders of the world,” Abbas told me and Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. “They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, ‘You have to comply with the conditions.’ “
While not sympathetic to Netanyahu, Diehl observed that Abbas’ plan, fed by Obama’s shifted focus, was to “watch while U.S. pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office.” Diehl summed up the situation neatly, “In the Obama administration, so far, it’s easy being Palestinian.”
In 2009, Obama prevailed upon Netanyahu to impose a settlement freeze in order to enable talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu agreed to this and imposed a 10 month freeze. During this time the Palestinians did not sit down to talk with Israel, until September, the month the freeze was set to expire. The negotiators met twice. But then Abbas demanded an extension of the freeze to continue talks. Israel refused and the talks ended.
A year later The New York Times reported on the strained ties between Obama and Abbas. The tone of the article was interesting. It was mainly reported from the perspective Abbas who felt betrayed by Obama for not bringing more pressure to bear on Israel.
Here’s how the Times described the incident:
“We hoped a lot that in his administration, there would be real progress,” said Nabil Shaath, who leads the foreign affairs department of Fatah, the main party of the Palestinian Authority. “But later on, disappointment set in,” Mr. Shaath said in a telephone interview from Ramallah on the West Bank. “He really could not deliver what he promised in terms of a cessation of settlement activity.”
When Mr. Netanyahu refused to extend a moratorium on construction, Mr. Abbas felt let down. And he blamed Mr. Obama for leading him on. In an interview with Newsweek in April, Mr. Abbas said: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said O.K., I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.”
While the article acknowledges that Israel didn’t believe that there should be any preconditions for negotiations, elsewhere the Times observes:
Among Palestinians, the disappointment is all the more acute because their hopes for Mr. Obama were so high. Judging by Mr. Obama’s background, temperament and worldview, Palestinians expected him to bring a new focus to the peace process and a greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause. It did not go unnoticed that he is friends with a prominent PalestinianAmerican scholar, Rashid Khalidi.
In 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged Netanyahu’s acceptance of a settlement freeze was “unprecedented,” but observed, “we couldn’t get the Palestinians into the conversation until the tenth month.”
Yet the False Narrative of Israeli Intransigence Persists
But reading the Times you get no sense that the Palestinians showed no urgency to negotiate, just that they felt betrayed because Obama didn’t pressure Israel more.
In 2013-14, the United States again tried to get the the two sides to negotiate. Over the course of nine months, Netanyahu released dozens of terrorists, many with blood on their hands, from jail in order to facilitate negotiations.
In the end the United States offered a framework agreement for a peace deal. Netanyahu reluctantly accepted it. Abbas refused to respond. As The Times of Israel reported at the time, refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, refused to abandon the so-called Palestinian “right of return” and refused to commit the Palestinians to an “end to conflict,” three elements that were considered core issues necessary for an agreement.
Two years ago, (nine months after Kerry’s effort came to naught,) former Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni said that it was Abbas who refused the framework, signed 15 international agreements and then attempted to make a unity government with the terrorist organization Hamas who killed the diplomatic efforts.
Abbas’s role as spoiler for the administration’s peace efforts gets too little attention.
Getting the support of Obama, did not move Abbas to take any risks for peace. He simply took it as an excuse to do nothing an let the Americans pressure Israel. The daylight between the United States that Obama said was necessary to promote peace didn’t accomplish what he said it would.
Even with that experience behind him, Obama is thought to be considering supporting a measure in the United Nations Security Council to impose the terms of peace deal on both parties. This, of course, would reward Abbas’ obstructionism.
The name “Abbas” is missing from the Sachs/Koplow essay. They’re correct in how Netanyahu resisted some of Obama’s pressure but give Netanyahu no credit for making concrete concessions to bring Abbas to the negotiating table.
The same mistaken premise that underlies Obama’s “daylight” observation, also is that the core of the Sachs/Koplow argument: that it is primarily up to Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. Neither one takes into account that the Palestinians are independent players.
Livni’s criticism of Abbas highlights this point. It suggests that even if Israel had been led by her, or Isaac Herzog or Ehud Barak or any other mainstreams left of center Israeli politician foreign policy experts favor over Netanyahu there would not now be peace because of the intransigence of Abbas.
What’s to Come with President Trump?
Michael Mandelbaum, in the May issue of the Commentary Magazine addressed this problem. He wrote that the next administration, if it insists on pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace must make two significant changes in its approach to the issue:
If, however, as history suggests is likely, it insists on following in the footsteps of the last seven administrations and pursuing a peace process, it should make two fundamental changes in how the United States conducts it. First, it should tell the truth about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: namely, that the responsibility for creating and perpetuating it rests with the Palestinian side. Peace requires that the Palestinians accept international law: Israel is a legitimate, internationally recognized sovereign state. It requires that they accept international custom: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the nation-state is the standard form of political organization in the world. And peace requires that the Palestinians accept the norms of common decency and common sense: The Jews have the same right to sovereignty as any other people. Peace, that is, requires a fundamental change of attitude on the part of the Palestinians, nothing less.
Negotiations will be fruitless at best without such a transformation, which raises the question of how to know that it has taken place. This leads to the second change the next administration should make in the peace process if it insists on continuing it. The next president should make it a condition for resuming negotiations that the Palestinians renounce their so-called right of return.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will not come by Israel making more concessions, but by a Palestinian change of heart.
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