Obama believes Israel will have trouble surviving if it keeps holding on to the territories, expanding settlements and suppressing the Palestinians. Ultimately, Israel will find itself facing a Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, weapons that can crack its defensive shields and the harsh hatred of the Arab masses. That threatening combination will vanquish the Jewish state.
That is hard talk. Obama reiterated this scenario in his two speeches - at the State Department last Thursday and at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference this past Sunday. No other U.S. president has expressed more concern for Israel's future. Get out of the territories and you will gain life, Obama is saying.
Netanyahu sees this as nonsense; he believes Obama does not understand the Middle East. The prime minister is convinced Israel will be destroyed if it withdraws from the territories. He believes his mission is to face the international pressure and foil the plot to remove the Israel Defense Forces and the settlers from the West Bank and replace them with a Palestinian state.
The Arab revolutions have only deepened the dispute between Netanyahu and Obama. The demonstrators in Egypt, Yemen and Syria remind Obama of the American civil rights movement. He believes history is on their side, that the Middle East masses will smash the tyrannies and win political power and civil rights. America will set an example for them and be a beacon of liberty and democracy.Both men are partially right and partially wrong, I suspect. Obama is right that holding onto the West Bank is bad for Israel. Netanyahu is right that the Arab revolutions have almost nothing to do with the American Civil Rights Movement, or with the end of Communism in Europe. (Obama yesterday said Poland should be the model for the Arabs; the nicest thing I can say about that is that perhaps he was trying to be real nice to his Polish hosts). They join each other in being wrong, however, when they both assume Israel's existence is in danger because of this decision or that.
To Israeli ears, this vision sounds like an aging hippie's drug-riddled hallucination. Every Israeli cabinet minister, official, expert and intelligence authority who visited Washington in recent months has warned his or her American interlocutors that Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are lurking behind the demonstrators. Israel is being suffocated by the Islamic octopus, which is closing in on it from all sides. Turkey is already lost. Egypt, Syria and Jordan shortly will become Iranian clones. Netanyahu believes that in the face of this threat the only recourse is entrenchment, and that any concession will bring the whole wall tumbling down. Israel must batten down the hatches and wait for the ugly wave to pass.
I've been reading a lot about Jerusalem recently, as an early stage to writing a book of my own on the subject. Since Jerusalem is a very old city, reading its history tends to give a bit of perspective. The world has changed fundamentally 7 or 8 or 9 times since the city first gained any significance beyond its own walls (it existed for about 2,000 years before that, unnoticed). The people living in each of the eras probably regarded their own age as permanent, and they were always wrong, even if sometimes the change didn't come until a few centuries later. So I'm wary of anyone who warns that not heeding him will lead to destruction, but following his advice will lead to permanent stability and peace. Some forces are beyond our ability to bend to our will (or even to foresee); on the other hand, willpower and determination are the only human agents that ensure survival no matter what the surrounding turmoil - which explains why there have been Jews in Jerusalem with very few interruptions no matter how dramatic the upheavals.
In my reading, the determination of the Jews to have their own state in this chapter of the human saga, is what will ensure it. Not this specific political decision nor that. Retaining control of the West Bank will not cause Israel's destruction, just as relinquishing control won't; in both cases the determination to persist will be more important, and will enable Israel to deal with whatever threats develop. So let's tone things down a bit. Contra both Obama and Netanyahu, Israel is not about to be overwhelmed one way or the other.
Of course, there will still be scenarios less catastrophic than the end of Israel which will play out better or worse, so there's lots of room for idiotic decisions, mistakes which later seem wise, and other internationally acclaimed events which will prove disastrous. Which is why I rather liked the interpretation suggested by David Samuels, writing in Tablet (h/ Michael).
Samuels thinks highly of Obama, and thinks his recent moves demonstrate sky-high political abilities. I'm not there yet, but am willing to accept that Obama may be moving towards a practical position which is actually quite promising: defusing the conflict of its worst excess, then hunkering down. This to be achieved by getting Israel out of most of the West Bank, enabling the Palestinians to build a state there (and in Gaza), redoubling Israel's security capabilities - and dealing with Jerusalem and the Right of Return many years later. In which context Samuels tells that the Palestinians are not going to relinquish their demand for a return. Not:
The question, then, is whether Obama believes that Jerusalem and the right of return are real issues—the core of the crisis—or not.Samuels thinks Obama knows this:
Having spoken with most of the leading figures in Fatah over the past decade, it is my sense that the real fantasy here is the arrogant assumption that the Palestinian leadership will abandon its most deeply held principles in exchange for what even moderates see as a shriveled slice of historic Palestine. Indeed, reviewing my notes of conversations with all of Arafat’s key political advisers and security chiefs, including Mahmoud Abbas, I can’t identify a single one who expressed any clear willingness to abandon the right of return, or recognize Israel as a Jewish state. At best, these were framed as issues for future negotiations that would need to be submitted to a vote of the entire Palestinian people—including an estimated 4 to 6 million refugees and their descendants. No Palestinian leader I’ve ever spoken with—secular moderates included—imagined Israel as a permanent feature of the political landscape in the Middle East. All saw it as a more or less unnatural creation that would be subsumed, peacefully or not, by the resurgence of Arab Palestine in 20, 50, or 100 years.
What Obama has very cleverly done therefore is to appropriate the Israeli proposal to establish a Palestinian state with interim borders—albeit on terms that the Israelis don’t particularly like. Yet each side stands to gain something very real from an interim arrangement that they would be unlikely to gain from an actual peace deal: The Palestinians would receive almost all of the territory they claim for an interim state—except Jerusalem—while holding on to their national dream of one day reclaiming all of Palestine from the Zionists. The Israelis, meanwhile, get a U.S.-sponsored end to the tar-baby of occupation and boatloads of shiny new weapons while holding on to major settlement blocs and an undivided Jerusalem. Hamas doesn’t have to sign a peace deal with the Israelis, and the Israelis don’t have to sign a peace deal with Hamas. America will benefit by having followed through on its promise—made by George W. Bush and repeated by Obama—to establish a Palestinian state. The millstone of Israeli occupation will be removed from around the necks of America and Israel, both of which will presumably find it easier to make friends in the Middle East.This scenario doesn't relate very well to the near certainty that there will be violence from the West Bank directed at Israel, and that Israel will be damned if and when it then responds with violence. Yet the story of the past decade shows that when Israel disregards the international opprobrium and does what it has to do, its neighbors - on the West Bank, in Southern Lebanon, and in Gaza (2002/4, 2006, 2009) do back down, at least for a while; the Syrian example of 1973/4 demonstrates that sometimes getting hit hard enough by Israel can convince Arab enemies to refrain from violence for quite a long time. The idea that ending Israeli control of the lives of most Palestinians might convince them to move along, is not obviously foolish.
The way I see it, the structure of the conflict is that the Palestinians reject the Jews right to a nation state, and will not accept peace unless it comes in a form which will enable them to keep striving for the end of Jewish Israel. This is why they've never agreed to anything offered to them. Israel, in the meantime, mostly does accept the Palestinians' right to a nation state, so long as it's permanently limited to the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians see a peace treaty as a step on the longer road to Israel's disappearance as the Jewish nation state; the Israelis will allow a Palestinian nation state only if it's the final stage of the conflict. These positions are irreconcilable.
What Israel needs to do - and what Obama may indeed be offering - is to break the stalemate by giving the Palestinians less than they could achieve in negotiations, i.e a state without Jerusalem. The assumption since Bill Clinton was president is that someday Israel would agree to divide Jerusalem if the Palestinians agreed to relinquish their demand for return. But they won't, so why should Israel? Better to remove the occupation - by far the most potent weapon the Palestinians have against Israel - and then continue the conflict from a position in which Israel holds all the main cards: It controls Jerusalem, and it prevents a Palestinian return. If the Palestinians can ever think of something to entice Israel to change its positions, good for them, but until then they won't be able to say that Israel must relinquish its most important positions in return for a Palestinian willingness to have sovereignty. They'll have sovereignty already. And they'll be judged - not in the court of world opinion but in the court of real life - by what they do with it.
Seen this way, the Egyptian decision to open the border with Gaza yesterday, is good for Israel, not bad. It is another step on the road to separating Israel from the Palestinians, in this case by reducing Israel's ability to intervene in Palestinian lives. If you read carefully, you'll see there are serious voices in Israel who agree on this.