Netanyahu Lieberman May 24, 2011
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs Sen. Joseph Lieberman on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 24, 2011. Photo by AP
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The only winner of the weeklong showdown at AIPAC and Congress is the media: there was a lot to write about; pundits could abound with feverish speculations about who would win, who would lose; who was leading in points against whom. But if you look at the dry facts, it is quite clear that everything was played out according to the predetermined script.

Netanyahu came to the U.S. with only one agenda: to make a good impression and to score points at AIPAC and Congress. Netanyahu knows that no Palestinian leadership can accept a deal without compromise on Jerusalem. Netanyahu is neither willing nor able to do this, so there is no use in even starting negotiations. So Netanyahu got his accolades for well crafted speeches that rehashed his old, known positions, and he has done what he does best: gain some more time.

The problem is that he gained very little time indeed – at most until September. The European media was in no way impressed with Netanyahu’s performance and saw it for what it was: sowing dust in the eyes of well-meaning American friends. Netanyahu made clear, once again, that the Palestinians have only one option, namely to continue their drive toward a bid for UN recognition for their state along the 1967 borders, a bid almost certain to succeed. And with Netanyahu in power this means that Israel will pay a heavy price in isolation, pressure and mounting criticism.

The Palestinians received further evidence that there is no use in negotiating with Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Their current strategic goal is broad international recognition, and they will soon have embassies in most of the world. This will create a much stronger position for them in negotiations with a future Israeli government more amenable to compromise.

The only interesting thing about last week was how Obama played his cards: he wants to be reelected in 2012, and any move seen as enforcing a non-negotiated solution on Israel would have brought him into collision course with a strong Christian Zionist constituency in the U.S. that supports Netanyahu. It would also have invited AIPAC’s ire, even though AIPAC no longer represents the majority of Jewish voters in the U.S.

But Obama also needs and wants to be seen as supporting change in the Arab world and the creation of a Palestinian state. Ergo: he expressed support for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. But he also stated that he will not accept unilateral moves by the Palestinians such as seeking recognition for a Palestinian state at the UN. Officially he therefore rejects imposing a non-negotiated solution to the conflict on Israel.

So far there are constraints on what he could say publicly. His actual position seems to be somewhat different: he knows that, given Netanyahu’s political constraints and his worldview, chances for productive negotiations with the Palestinians are practically zero. He also knows that the Palestinians’ bid for recognition by the UN General Assembly, where the U.S. does not have veto power, is likely to receive more than two-thirds of the vote, probably including Britain and France.

Hence Obama’s strategy is really quite interesting: he will let the international community do the work of establishing the 1967 borders as a fact of international law without paying a heavy political price at home. He can step into the ring after his reelection, when he will have a much freer hand, and will be able to argue legitimately that he is representing the international community in moving toward the only solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict - two viable states for two peoples.

The clear losers in Netanyahu’s short-sightedness wrapped into grandiose verbal pyrotechnics are the citizens of Israel. Once the dust of the media storm settles down, we will be faced with the stark truth: The specter of Israel’s ever-growing isolation and of increasing international pressure looms large. Once the Palestinians succeed in their bid for statehood, the Netanyahu government will be facing international criticism of its settlement policies unprecedented in force and intensity.

The tragedy is that Israel’s growing isolation and the Palestinians’ unilateral move could be avoided. Instead of fighting the Palestinians' bid for recognition, Israel should support it. Israelis have an overriding and legitimate concern: they fear that the Palestinians really see the two-state solution as a two-stage solution; that they will continue to press for the right of millions of Palestinians to return to Israel after they have a state of their own, thus effectively turning Israel into a bi-national state. This fear is not unfounded, particularly since Hamas has so far refused to accept Israel’s existence and promises to use any means to wipe it off the face of the earth.

Israel’s best strategy to defuse this concern would be to cooperate with the Palestinian bid for UN recognition – with a caveat. Israel could demand that recognition of Palestine within the 1967 borders be conditional on the Palestinians renouncing any further claim west of this border, a demand likely to be met by the international community, and supported by the Arab League Peace Initiative.

UN recognition of Palestine along the 1967 borders is really in Israel’s interest, because it preempts the creation of a bi-national state; it would finally provide Israel with internationally recognized borders for the first time since its foundation; and it would leave Hamas with no choice but to recognize Israel’s legitimacy.

But Netanyahu is incapable of looking that far ahead, and incapable of bold moves. That much was clear when, after the 2009 elections, he preferred a narrow right-wing government to a coalition with Kadima, and when he put Avigdor Lieberman into the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu’s rigid worldview and his petty struggle for political survival prevent him from taking a creative approach in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, and we Israelis will have to pay the price.