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Yes, We Can’t

What Obama got right, and wrong, in his Middle East speech.

Jerusalem—It was a nation of ambivalent Israelis that listened to President Obama’s latest Middle East plan—an interim agreement based on ending the occupation of the Palestinians while somehow ensuring the security of the Israelis. Israeli ambivalence is peculiar: It has nothing to do with uncertainty or confusion. Instead, to be an ambivalent Israeli is to be torn between two conflicting certainties. As an ambivalent Israeli, I know that a Palestinian state is an existential necessity for me—saving Israel from the untenable choice between being a Jewish and a democratic state, from the moral erosion of occupation, from the growing movement to again turn the Jews, via the Jewish state, into the symbol of evil.

But I also know that a Palestinian state is an existential threat to me—forcing Israel back into eight-mile-wide borders between Palestine and the Mediterranean Sea, with the center of the country vulnerable to rocket attacks from the West Bank hills that overlook it. And, if Tel Aviv were to become the next Sderot—the Israeli town on the Gaza border that has endured thousands of missile attacks following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005—the international community might well try to prevent us from defending ourselves against terrorists embedded in a civilian population, with all the consequences of asymmetrical warfare. Moreover, a generation of Palestinians has been raised to see Israelis as Nazis, thieves, inventors of a history not rooted in this land. Alone among national movements, only the Palestinian cause conditions its dream of statehood on the disappearance of another state. (And that is the dream that not only Hamas but Fatah, too, actively incites in internal Palestinian discourse.) Alone among occupiers, only Israel fears that territorial withdrawal won’t merely diminish but destroy it.

And so, there were two sides of me listening to the president. The dovish side embraced his vision of an interim agreement that would leave the issues of Jerusalem and refugee return to a later stage and instead focus on ending the occupation and providing security guarantees. But the hawkish side of me wondered whether this president has learned anything about the Middle East.

I listened in disbelief as he stated that, while there are those who believe that the regional instability of recent months makes a solution impossible for now, he believes the opposite is true. On what basis, Mr. President? From where I’m sitting in Jerusalem—watching Turkey turn Islamist and pro-Iranian, Lebanon being devoured by Hezbollah, Hamas legitimized by Fatah, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt, and Iran’s nuclear program proceeding apace—I would say that this is just about the worst time to try to entice an ambivalent Israeli into empowering his dovish side. At a time when Egyptian-Israeli relations—our only successful land for peace agreement—could be unraveling, Israelis are hardly likely to risk another withdrawal, this time from our most sensitive border, and without even the pretense of a peace agreement. 

So: Yes to the vision. But no, we can’t implement it anytime soon. In other words: Yes, we can’t.

In fact, by the standards that Obama himself set in his speech—insistence on Hamas’s recognition of Israel, rejection of Palestinian unilateralist moves toward statehood at the U.N.—we can’t even get to the negotiating table, let alone negotiate a solution. But, even if we somehow got to the table—say, the Fatah-Hamas deal collapses and the Palestinian Authority withdraws its UN initiative—Obama’s own conditions could make an interim agreement impossible. Those conditions include Palestinian recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people—which the Palestinian Authority says it will never do. And it includes serious security arrangements for Israel—in Obama’s words, allowing Israel to defend itself “by itself.” Given that, under an interim agreement, Israel would be withdrawing to fragile borders while the conflict remains unresolved, those security arrangements would need to be severe. They would include an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River—which the Palestinians have likewise vetoed—and on West Bank hilltops overlooking greater Tel Aviv.

What, then, should Prime Minister Netanyahu say in response to the speech?

He should say yes to the vision, which includes key elements of his own position. Obama’s call for Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state is a victory for Netanyahu, who was mocked by the international community and by the Israeli left for insisting on precisely that precondition. Obama’s powerful endorsement of the need to preserve Israel’s ability—not just abstract right—to defend itself is an opening for Netanyahu to press his case for an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, Israel’s line of first defense in the event of unforeseen regional threats.

In a statement following Obama’s speech, Netanyahu expressed disappointment in the President’s failure to reiterate long-standing American policy against a Palestinian right of return to the Jewish state. Yet that should not be a reason for rejecting Obama’s speech. By deferring both the fate of Jerusalem and right of return to a final negotiating phase, Obama has chosen to chastise neither Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas for his insistence on right of return nor Netanyahu for his insistence on a united Jerusalem under Israeli rule.

A final agreement would stipulate Jerusalem as the capital of two states. And it would stipulate Palestinian right of return being fulfilled exclusively within the borders of a Palestinian state—without complicated formulas and slippery numbers games and other tricks currently being promoted by the Palestinian leadership and their supporters.

If I were Netanyahu, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over the right of return or, for that matter, the status of united Jerusalem. In fact, in the unlikely event that Obama’s vision of an interim agreement is ever implemented, the result might well be the permanent deferment of a permanent solution, leaving the Palestinians to dream about Haifa and Jaffa, and Israel to continue maintaining a united Jerusalem.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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