Obama’s trip to Israel: Just showing up isn’t enough

The U.S. president’s decision to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories in the spring is an unexpected political gift to the Israeli prime minister. Yet without confronting Netanyahu on the issues of the settlements and the ’67 borders, we could end up with another diplomatic failure and even a renewal of violence in the region.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the White House (photo: Pete Souza / White House)
President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the White House (photo: Pete Souza / White House)

The White House’s confirmation regarding the planned visit by President Barack Obama to Israel and the Palestinian Authority came just at the right time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been facing some difficulties in putting together his next coalition. As was the case four years ago, Netanyahu wants the widest possible government, but the centrist parties are demanding a renewal of “meaningful negotiations” with the PA and military draft reform. Things will be made considerably easier now, as Obama’s visit alone will generate the feeling that peace talks are indeed on their way, thus making Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid’s entry into the coalition much easier.

Naturally, the mere presence of Lapid and/or Livni in the government doesn’t guarantee anything regarding the diplomatic process itself, and I still think that even if there was a real desire to end the occupation on the Israeli side, the current Knesset doesn’t present a workable political base for it, especially due to the changes within Netanyahu’s Likud party. It is worth noting that Naftali Bennett and the settlers don’t have any problem joining a government that would renew negotiations with the Palestinians. They believe that nothing will come out of the talks, certainly not evacuation of settlements, under the present political circumstances. As I have written in the past, the political behavior of the settlers is a good litmus test for the level of seriousness on the Israeli side.

The planned visit also confirms, at least in the Israeli public’s image, the Right’s claim that Netanyahu’s confrontational approach didn’t hurt Israeli interests, and perhaps even aided them. On the other hand, it’s clear that the president waited for the right moment – when he is strong and Netanyahu is weak(er) before making a visit. The Israeli media estimated yesterday that aside from the desire to safeguard American interests in the region and to renew the peace process, the visit also has to do with a political debt to members of the Jewish elite that supported the president in the last elections.

Netanyahu and the diplomatic process

Still, the political circumstances in Israel are less important than the goals of the visit regarding the Palestinian issue – assuming that there are such goals, and that the purpose of the visit is not solely coordinating positions on Syria and Iran.

Making the Palestinians and the Israelis to talk to each other is the easiest part – Obama had Netanyahu and President Abbas meet once – but the real question has to do with the nature of the process. Negotiations could be meaningful if they are prepared correctly. Simply forcing the two parties to meet could end up producing nothing (as was the case three years ago) or worse, in a rapid collapse on the ground like the one that followed the failed Camp David summit in 2000.

Here are some of the most important issues to consider:

1. Prime Minister Netanyahu has moved away from positions taken by Israeli negotiators since the beginning of the last decade. He (a) refuses to see ’67 borders as the goal of the process, with agreed upon land swaps and slight border modifications; and (b) he refuses a compromise on Jerusalem. This is a major issue that didn’t receive enough attention in the public debate.

2. The Israeli government continues to build settlements in the West Bank in a way that creates enormous frustration and bitterness among the Palestinian population; it takes away land resources required for any future Palestinian state and contributes to the problem the same government would face if it were ever willing to sign a deal. It is important to note the contradicting positions the Israeli government is holding on this issue – insisting that the settlements are “not a problem” and could be evacuated within a final agreement, and at the same time demanding that any such agreement will reflect a recognition of “changes on the ground” since 1967 – meaning the settlements.

3. Prime Minister Netanyahu has introduced new demands which were never brought up by Israeli negotiators in the past – like a Palestinian recognition of internal issues regarding the culture and the regime of the State of Israel. The Palestinian leadership is required not just to recognize Israel – something it has done in the past – but to recognize it as a Jewish state. This is perhaps the most cynical of Netanyahu’s actions, because it is also serves an internal purpose – to delegitimize and isolate the Israelis, Jews and Arabs who believe in a democratic “state of all its citizens” model.

4. Finally, in both his previous terms, Netanyahu refused to prepare the Israeli public for concessions and instead had it anticipate an inevitable failure. One can never underestimate the power of a leader in shaping the cultural and political landscape, and unlike Rabin, and to a lesser degree Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t convey any urgency to end the occupation; instead he demonizes the Palestinians and throws into the public debate more and more terms and issues where Israel must not compromise. In other words, Netanyahu is undermining the whole notion of an agreement by constantly raising its cost on the Israeli side. The result is a growing disbelief among the Israeli public regarding the ability to end the occupation, which is reflected across the entire political system. Unlike the previous points, this is not an issue that the administration can directly influence, but rather something to watch as the diplomatic effort is renewed.

Unless those issues, and especially the first two points, are addressed, I think it will be impossible to reach any sort of meaningful breakthrough. This will require investing a lot of political capital on the American side, something the White House has been reluctant to do in the past.

There are also problems regarding the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, but I believe that the Palestinian desire to end the occupation is so large that if there was indeed an Israeli partner who would evacuate settlements and move the army out of the West Bank, any Palestinian leadership that would deal with him could win back the support of the street, even today.

Yet this also should be said: The United States and Israel can force any given Palestinian leadership into talks, and maybe even into signing an agreement that does nothing but slightly modify the status quo and present it as “peace.” Still, without addressing the real needs and rights of the Palestinian people, such an achievement – more than anything that happens right now in the absence of a real diplomatic process – would be the best way to ensure further bloodshed and suffering on both sides.

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