In his State Department speech last week, Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet to Benjamin Netanyahu. In the Oval Office a day later, and more fully in an address to Congress yesterday, Netanyahu picked it up and threw it right back.
The question now is whether this clash can be turned into a new understanding between the United States and Israel that improves the prospects for the two-state solution both parties say they want. To bring this about, Obama will have to make further tweaks to his approach and rethink his declared stance on Palestinian refugees, among other matters. For his part, Netanyahu will have to accept the fact that events have overtaken key aspects of the 2004 agreement between the Bush administration and former Prime Minister Sharon. If peace is possible, it is only along the lines former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas explored during their 2006-2008 negotiations.
Obstacles to such a meeting of the minds between Obama and Netanyahu begin at the personal level. Whatever they may say in public, these two leaders genuinely dislike each other. Obama regards Netanyahu as an untrustworthy obstructionist; Netanyahu regards Obama as a blundering naïf.
Second, they disagree about the prospects presented by the status quo. Obama believes that changes on the ground have made it more dangerous to stand pat than to move forward, while Netanyahu believes the reverse. Obama, to his credit, has offered a clear and coherent argument for his position: The demography of the West Bank is shifting to Israel’s disadvantage; technological changes are making it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of genuine peace; as democratic movements surge throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Arab publics must see that peace is possible; and as the “international community” is becoming increasingly impatient, Israel is becoming more and more isolated. Resuming peace talks, the argument continues, is the only way of heading off a confrontation at the United Nations this summer that will leave Israel and the United States standing alone, not only against the developing world, but most of Europe as well.
For his part, Netanyahu believes that the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East makes peace harder, not easier, to achieve and renders the status quo, for all its imperfections, the safer option for the time being. Until a new regime is established in Egypt and new leadership takes power, the future of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—a linchpin of Israel’s security—will remain in doubt. The widening gulf between Israel and Turkey’s Islamist government is disconcerting. It may well be that changes in the region catalyzed the rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, which only made a bad situation worse.
In addition, the two leaders have different views of the forthcoming UN vote on Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu is prepared to tough it out, even if the Europeans break toward the Palestinian side and only the United States is left to stand by Israel. That is the scenario Obama is desperate to avoid. If America is put in the position of being the last obstacle to international recognition of a Palestinian state, Obama’s aspiration to improve relations with the Arab and Muslim world would probably be thwarted for quite some time. Netanyahu doesn’t think that’s a problem; Obama does.
Even if these differences of perspective could be set aside, however, there’s a third problem: Obama and Netanyahu disagree about the conditions on which Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can and should resume, and the terms on which it should be resolved. Netanyahu’s baseline is the letter President Bush gave then-Prime Minister Sharon on April 14, 2004 as part of a sequence of events including Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the construction of its security fence. Here, verbatim, are the relevant portions of that letter:
“The United States is strongly committed to Israel’s well-being and security as a Jewish state.”
“As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338.”
“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
“[A]n agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”
“[T]he United States supports the establishment of a Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent …”
It is against this baseline, which Israel’s right-wing coalition and its many American supporters cherish, that Netanyahu judged what Obama said at the State Department on May 19. Here are the corresponding sections from Obama’s speech:
“[A] lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people …”
“[T]he borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps …”
“The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves … in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
“I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.”
This schematic comparison clarifies what is and what is not in dispute between Netanyahu and Obama. They clearly agree on a two-state solution, on the need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and (less clearly) on the importance of territorial contiguity for a Palestinian state. And whatever Netanyahu might wish, both Bush’s letter and Obama’s speech leave open the final status of Jerusalem.
The comparison also identifies key points of difference between the Bush and Obama administrations, and between Obama and Netanyahu. First, along with the vast majority of Israelis, the Bush administration believed that the refugee problem could be resolved in only one way: The refugees would have the right to return to the new independent Palestinian state, but not to Israel. By contrast, Obama explicitly left that issue open. Whatever his rationale, any Israeli government is bound to find that stance disconcerting. Obama surely understands that any significant flow of Palestinian refugees to Israel would be a deal-breaker. If he’s in the business of saying out loud what everyone already knows, this would be an appropriate addition to the list.
The other and better-known disagreement revolves around the formulation of the border issue. In the first place, Bush’s letter emphasizes “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers,” as does Netanyahu, while Obama’s speech is conspicuously silent about them. Second, Bush’s letter speaks of the 1949 armistice lines while Obama speaks of the 1967 lines. Although these are in fact the same lines, the Bush formulation has the effect of emphasizing the provisional and de facto nature of the former rather than de jure character of the latter. The armistice lines cited by Bush reflect a cease-fire based on the military situation at a particular point in time, nothing more. Third, Bush’s letter refers to UN resolutions 242 and 338, which are notoriously (some would say deliberately) ambiguous about the extent of Israeli withdrawal, while Obama specifies the 1967 lines as the point of departure. Having said this, when Bush spoke of mutually agreed “changes,” the context makes it pretty clear that the changes will be in relation to the 1949 armistice lines, i.e. the 1967 lines.
At the end of the day, then, the most significant difference between Obama and Bush, and between Obama and Netanyahu, concerns the American attitude toward large Jewish settlement blocs east of the 1967 lines. Bush explicitly resolved that question in Israel’s favor, while Obama leaves it open. In his address to Congress, Netanyahu declared that any territorial compromise would have to leave the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who inhabit what he called the “neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv” inside the borders of Israel. He also stated, opaquely, that “other places of critical strategic and national importance” would also have to be incorporated into the Jewish state. In sum, he concluded, “Israel will be generous on the size of a Palestinian state but will be very firm on where we put the border with it.”
In addition, Obama addressed two other fraught issues at the State Department on which he does not see eye-to-eye with Netanyahu. He declared that “The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.” This formulation gives something to each side. However it might be timed, a full withdrawal of Israeli military forces would rule out an Israeli security corridor along the Jordan. On the other hand, the requirement that an independent Palestine remain non-militarized leans toward a key demand Netanyahu made in his pivotal speech of June 14, 2009, in which he explicitly promised to work toward a two-state solution. In his speech to Congress, however, Netanyahu took a tough line on both points. He stated that Israel must maintain what he called a “long-term military presence” along the Jordan River, and he insisted that any Palestinian state must be “fully demilitarized,” a standard which (as past negotiations have shown) is more rigorous than “non-militarized.”
Obama also created more problems for himself when he waded into another issue—the diplomatic implications of the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. On Thursday, he put it this way: “Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.” This vague formula seemed to reopen issues long regarded as settled—in particular, the steps that Hamas would be required to take before it could qualify as a legitimate participant in negotiations.
The president and his advisors quickly realized that his Thursday language concerning Hamas was unsatisfactory, however, and they toughened it considerably at his speech at AIPAC on Sunday. He said that “No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction … we will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist and rejecting violence and adhering to all existing agreements.” (For good measure, he called on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier it has held captive for five years.) For his part, Netanyahu told Congress that Israel would not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by “the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda,” and he called on President Abbas to “tear up” his pact with Hamas as the prelude to any new talks.
As he flew toward America for his confrontation with Obama and pivotal address to Congress, Netanyahu basically had two basic options. The first was to stand fast to his prior positions on borders, refugees, and settlements and attempt to rally American pro-Israel sentiment, weakening if not isolating Obama. That’s the default position for risk-averse politicians in both American parties, and it’s a solid foundation for a Likud prime minister who wants to stand his ground. For now, that’s also the path that he has chosen, and it’s working. On Sunday, right before President Obama spoke to AIPAC, Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, delivered a speech that Netanyahu could have uttered virtually verbatim. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid treated AIPAC to what was widely regarded as a rare public rebuke of President Obama. On Tuesday, members of Congress of both parties gave Netanyahu a hero’s welcome.
There’s another option for Netanyahu, however. Between December 2006 and September 2008, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and PA president Mahmoud Abbas met dozens of times and substantially narrowed their differences, to the point that American bridging proposals might have sealed the deal. While it was predictable that the incoming Netanyahu government would choose to begin in a different place when it took office early in 2009, much has changed since then. In particular, the prime minister has learned that his right-wing coalition can be a burden as well as a blessing.
We will never know what might have happened if Netanyahu had been able to persuade Tzipi Livni to assume a leading role in a Likud-Kadima government. It’s pretty clear, though, that Netanyahu would have been able to dispense with the services of his odious foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose party provides the current government’s majority. If Netanyahu wanted to be an historic statesman and not just a successful party leader, he would seize the opportunity to revisit that fateful choice and be positioned to resume some version of the Olmert-Abbas talks.
To be sure, as long as Hamas maintains its current posture, no Israeli government can possibly enter into negotiations. Strained legalisms about the PLO as lead negotiator will cut no ice politically because they don’t touch the core reality: There’s a difference between a true peace and a long truce. Unless Israel can be confident that the Palestinians want to end the struggle, not just postpone it, they won’t make necessary compromises. Nor should they.
But trust works both ways. It’s far from clear that Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution is more than tactical. It is one thing to declare it as a goal, another to do what is necessary to bring it about. If Netanyahu really means it, he should abandon the rhetoric that appeals to post-1967 religious ultra-nationalism, and he should adopt the product of the Abbas/Olmert talks as his baseline. That would be the Palestinians’ moment of truth. In mid-2009, Olmert wrote that “To this day, I cannot understand why the Palestinian leadership did not accept the far-reaching and unprecedented proposal I offered them.” That’s a fair observation, and an essential question. In the short term, Netanyahu has staked out a position he knows the Palestinians cannot possibly accept. But down the road, he should find out whether the Palestinians will say yes to the best proposal that any Israeli government could possibly make. And if they won’t, Israel and the United States should move on.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.
Follow @tnr on Twitter.