Barack Obama says the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is a threat to the United States' national security. But is he acting like it is?
Two States, No Solutions
BY JAMES TRAUB
DECEMBER 17, 2010
Indeed, international delegitimation may be the most powerful weapon the Palestinians have. The West Bank leadership will keep raising accusations that Israel is violating international law, whether through its blockade of Gaza or its commando raid last May on the flotilla seeking to break the blockade, in the hopes of shifting global public opinion and thus raising the pressure on Israel. Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University and a pronounced skeptic of the peace process, suggests that the "South Africanization of Israel, if coupled with a domestic nonviolent campaign," might make the status quo far less acceptable to Israelis.
Israel, of course, has been living with delegitimation for a long time, and is prepared to keep doing so. But is the Obama administration prepared to continue acting as Israel's sole bulwark against the world? Officials have steadfastly defended Israel from criticism and backed off the demand for a settlement freeze, even as their own frustration has mounted. Netanyahu has now killed Plan A. Plan B, the parallel talks, will finally allow the administration to put its own proposals for borders and perhaps the other "final-status" issues on the table. Maybe something will come of that; but it's unlikely. The two sides are becoming less, not more, prepared to make painful sacrifices.
The Netanyahu government has gotten very deft at stringing Washington along without explicitly saying no. What if that happens again with the parallel talks? Is the Obama administration prepared to do something that would put real pressure on Tel Aviv? The answer is almost certainly no. There are no signs that Clinton or others are leaning in this direction, and with an incoming Congress even more primal in its support for Israel than the current one, the White House is unlikely to risk the political costs of tightening the screws on Israel. And yet Israel's intransigence ensures that the "new beginning" with the Middle East that Obama famously promised in his Cairo speech of June 2009 will not happen, with all the attendant consequences for America's standing in the region. Is that really acceptable?
If the White House fears the consequences of Palestinian efforts at applying leverage, whether through violence or civil disobedience or "South Africanization," then it must find leverage of its own. Certainly, it has a lot more sticks and carrots than the Palestinians do. Should the administration begin to apply conditions to U.S. aid, as the blogger M. J. Rosenberg recently proposed? Should it open up channels with Hamas, as others suggest? Should it stop automatically rushing to Israel's side every time its ally is accused of violating international law? Far less controversially, what about going public with a proposed map of the two states, either directly or through the medium of the United Nations? Both the Netanyahu government and Hamas would be likely to reject the proposal, but it might galvanize publics on both sides, thus strengthening Abbas's hand and weakening Netanyahu's.
If the Obama administration really believes that the impasse in the Middle East is a national security threat for the United States, than Obama will have to mobilize American public opinion behind whatever action he chooses to take. He will have to explain that this is not a question of pitting American interests against Israeli ones, but of acting in a way that ensures the long-time security of both states. In the Cairo speech, he eloquently addressed the hopes of the Middle East. Now he must face the equally difficult, and equally crucial, task of addressing the public at home.
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