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Netanyahu's Sustainable Status Quo

May 24, 2011

Last week, President Obama endured a firestorm of criticism for stating, as President Bush did before him, the by now obvious contours of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But largely overlooked in his addresses at the State Department and to AIPAC was Obama's assertion that "the status quo is unsustainable." Sadly, Benjamin Netanyahu couldn't disagree more. Determined to maintain his right-wing governing coalition and empowered by Israel's unrivaled military superiority in the region, Prime Minister Netanyahu seems content to perpetuate the Israeli occupation of and "manageable" conflict in the Palestinian territories.
Leon Wieseltier, certainly no great friend of the Palestinian cause, summed up Netanyahu's posture last week:

As a matter of declaratory policy, Netanyahu has committed himself to a two-state solution, but he has not acted significantly on that commitment. Instead he watches passively as the world changes around him, and confirms himself in his sense of his rightness, and reads the polls, and evasively waits for the political season in the United States to begin.

Which seems about right. After all, for the second time in a year, Netanyahu's government announced the building of new West Bank settlement units on the eve of meetings with the Obama administration. (In March 2010, a stunned Vice President Biden told his Israeli hosts, "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.") And to be sure, Bibi Netanyahu has used his appearances at AIPAC and before a joint session of Congress to maximum effect, effectively enlisting Republican (and some Democratic) support in a campaign against the President of the United States.
In his speeches over the past 24 hours, Netanyahu laid new land mines in the path of peace talks and made clear that Israel was fully prepared to continue the status quo indefinitely should they not come to pass. Thanking the U.S. for helping Israel "maintain our Qualitative Military Edge," Netanyahu emphasized that the gap was growing:

So I want to thank the President and Congress for providing Israel with vital assistance so that Israel can defend itself by itself.
Thank you for supporting the Iron Dome missile-defense system.
A few weeks ago, Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired eight rockets at Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva. The rockets never reached their targets. Iron Dome intercepted them. For the first time, a missile defense system worked in combat.
Thank you, America.

Before Congress Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced, "I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historical peace." But to get it, Netanyahu didn't just demand that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas "Tear up your pact with Hamas. Sit down and negotiate. Make peace with the Jewish state." But peace, he insisted to AIPAC, "is not a panacea for the endemic problems of the Middle East."

It will not give women is some Arab countries in the Middle East the right to drive a car. It will not prevent Churches from being bombed. It will not keep journalists out of jail.
What will change all this? One word.
Democracy. Real, genuine, democracy.
By democracy, I don't just mean elections. I mean Freedom of Speech. Freedom of the Press. Freedom of Assembly. The Rule of Law. Rights for women, for gays, for minorities, for everyone. What the people of the Middle East need is what you have in America, and what we have in Israel.
Democracy.

Americans could be forgiven for doubting Netanyahu's sincerity on the point.
As Haaretz reported in February amidst the growing unrest in Egypt, "Israel called on the United States and a number of European countries over the weekend to curb their criticism of President Hosni Mubarak to preserve stability in the region." One Israeli cabinet official said of the Mubarak regime at the time, "We do believe that the regime is strong enough to overcome it by means of its security apparatus." While expressions liked "a bullet in the back from Uncle Sam" were common among Israeli political pundits, another unnamed Israeli official complained:

"The question is, do we think Obama is reliable or not. Right now it doesn't look so."

When it comes to the stalled peace process, TNR's Wieseltier places blame at the feet of both Abbas and Netanyahu:

I say Netanyahu, because I do not believe that he wants peace with the Palestinians more than he wants his political base. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon: the peacemakers of Israel were all men of war. They underwent personal transformations, and thereby established their historical magnitude. I see no evidence of such an interior development in Netanyahu. He says that he cannot conduct a peace process with Fatah when it is allied with Hamas, and I see his point; but he has played into the hands of the Palestinian maximalists. Anyway, he did not conduct a peace process with Fatah when it was not allied with Hamas.
Netanyahu says that the Arab spring is a source of anxiety for Israel, as surely it is; but he failed to bestir himself during the Arab winter. He says that Iran's nuclear ambitions pose a dire threat to Israel, and he is right; but he is changing the subject. (The Stuxnet virus is not a foreign policy.) He says that he must proceed cautiously because of the weakening of American influence in the Middle East; but he contributed to this weakening, when he refused to accede to the American request that he put a stop to settlements after the American president egregiously staked our regional prestige upon it. Strategically speaking, was it really too much to ask? Netanyahu chose the Ariel settlements over America.

"The Arabs," former Israeli ambassador to the United States Abba Eban once said, "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." When it comes to the near-peace agreements with the Palestinians, that would be the claim of former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak. Nevertheless, a decade after the collapse of his Camp David talks with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat, Barak warned his fellow Israelis that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was the only way to secure Israel's future as a "Zionist, Jewish, democratic state":

"As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."

As for Netanyahu, he didn't jump through the window of opportunity when it was open to him. Now, with Hamas back in the Palestinian unity government and facing the demise of authoritarian regimes in Egypt (and likely elsewhere) committed to tamping down anti-Israeli sentiment, Bibi's supposed desire for peace will be harder to achieve than just 12 or 24 months ago. But that's probably just fine with Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, while Barack Obama may think perpetuating the Israeli occupation and simmering Palestinian unrest is a recipe for disaster, Bibi apparently thinks the status quo is sustainable, indeed.


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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