If Benjamin Netanyahu is elected prime minister, he will try to convince Barack Obama that the time has come to change direction in the Middle East. Netanyahu will play to Obama's psychology, to his self-image as a winner: His two immediate predecessors attempted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ended their presidencies as losers. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush took the same path, from the festive signing ceremony on the White House lawn 15 years ago to the glum graduation party in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, and got nowhere. Give my ideas a chance, Netanyahu will tell Obama, and maybe you'll be a winner.
Netanyahu hopes that the proximity between the change in the U.S. administration and the general election in Israel will work to his advantage. If they meet in the White House next spring, Obama will be a new president and will not yet have been captured by the false charms of Oslo and Annapolis. He will still be impressionable. Were the Israeli elections to take place only a year from now, the new guard in Washington would be entrenched in the existing peace process and obligated to it. In the spring there will be a rare window of opportunity for new ideas.
Netanyahu believes that the talk about "the end of the conflict" and "the final-status arrangement" in which his rival Tzipi Livni is invested is idle talk that will go nowhere due to the stubborn refusal of the Palestinians to compromise on critical issues such as recognition of the Jewish state and giving up the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. But Netanyahu also understands that Obama cannot provide support for suspending negotiations or for shelving the two-state vision. He will therefore search for a formula that will not deny the Palestinians' right to self-determination but will also be sufficiently imprecise so as not to upset Benny Begin and Israel's right-wing parties.
"The status quo and stagnation are not options," Netanyahu will tell Obama. We'll continue with the talks on the final-status arrangement but we'll put most of our energy into changing the situation on the ground. The conflict cannot be solved now, but obstacles to war can be created if the Palestinians have something to lose; if civil society develops in the territories that can pacify and restrain the terrorists. If economic growth in the Palestinian Authority reaches 10 percent a year and the change is seen and felt quickly, we will obtain stability on the ground even without reaching agreement over the last alley in Jerusalem. Netanyahu will remind Obama that even the European Union was built gradually, and that the cessation of hostilities in Northern Ireland was attained thanks to economic growth.
At their meeting in Jerusalem in July Netanyahu got Obama interested in the "economic peace" idea and told him that a distinction must be made between Palestinian economic development and Israel's security needs. Instead of arguing about removing checkpoints it would be better to create jobs close to the Palestinian cities and to build projects that could move the economy in the territories forward and also involve Jordan and Egypt. For a moment Netanyahu seemed to have turned into Shimon Peres, putting forth ideas such as a rail line from Aqaba to Ashdod (with a branch line to the Gaza Strip once Hamas is pushed out of power there), or an industrial corridor from Haifa to Irbid, via Jenin.
Netanyahu is aware of the expectations that his relationship with Obama will be poor and friction-prone, like his relations with Clinton a decade ago. He believes that circumstances have changed, and that there was chemistry between him and Obama at their two meetings. That won't be enough. Netanyahu will have a problem with the settlers, especially if the settlers' violence toward the Palestinians escalates, leading to harsh international criticism of Israel. Or in the event the Obama administration insists on evacuating West Bank outposts, and the Netanyahu government is dependent upon the support of the right.
Netanyahu confidants are of the opinion that Obama will prefer to focus on the Syrian channel, since Syria can help him in the United States' withdrawal from Iraq and in dealing with Iran. Would that justify an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights? Netanyahu will tell Obama that the extent of Israel's flexibility vis-a-vis Syria will depend on the extent of the administration's decisiveness vis-a-vis Iran. And he will attempt to persuade the president that regarding the Syrian channel, too, it would be a good idea to leave behind the formula of full withdrawal in exchange for full peace and to think about interim solutions and stabilizing measures, even without an end to the conflict. For example, withdrawing from the Druze villages on the northern Golan Heights in exchange for a non-belligerence agreement.
Netanyahu believes that his knowledge of America and his understanding of Obama's political needs will enable him to win over Obama. But first Netanyahu will have to convince the Israeli public that his proposals are genuine, and not merely an attempt to wrap his rigid rejection of territorial withdrawals and the evacuation of settlements in pretty but meaningless talk.
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