OPINION / Netanyahu turned Palestinian statehood into bargaining chip
Had PM agreed to settlement freeze from outset, he'd have forced Obama to demand more concessions.
WASHINGTON - If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had walked out of the White House on May 18 and announced that he accepted President Barack Obama's demands to freeze all settlement construction, he would merely have forced the president to demand some other significant concession from Israel. Obama was urged not only by Arab leaders, but also by many so-called progressive Jewish ones to show "even-handedness," to stop the U.S. tilt in favor of Israel in order to become a credible broker for peace in the Middle East.
Aaron David Miller, a Jewish-American diplomat and oft-quoted expert on the Middle East, captured this position well in a Newsweek essay entitled "Obama must get tough with Israel to achieve peace." By not crying uncle the first time Israel's arm was twisted, Netanyahu allowed Obama to show that he is not all talk on the eve of his Cairo speech.
Moreover, while several liberal Jewish members of Congress read the riot act to Netanyahu, including Carl Levin, Howard Berman and Henry Waxman, the Washington Post's official editorial called for finding a compromise between the Israeli and American positions - one that could hardly have been considered if Netanyahu had accepted a full freeze from the get-go.
The Post, hardly an Israeli cheerleader, stated in its June 7 editorial that "by insisting on [a total construction ban], the administration risks bogging itself down in a major dispute with its ally, while giving Arab governments and Palestinians a ready excuse not to make their own concessions." Moreover, it said, "the practical need for a total settlement freeze is debatable" and "a good compromise is achievable."
Arguably even more important if true give-and-take is to occur, Netanyahu succeeded overnight in taking back a very major concession that previous Israeli governments had made and turning it into a significant bargaining chip. For years - surely ever since Ehud Barak made his famous magnanimous peace offer - Israeli support for a two-state solution was more or less taken for granted. In a surprisingly short period, Netanyahu has put Israel into a position in which if it agrees to two states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan will be able to say that they and Obama have wrested a major concession from Israel's "right-wing government."
But by far the most important step Netanyahu took during his May visit received next to no attention. This may be because he made the point rather indirectly. Netanyahu stated, "I want to make it clear that we don't want to govern the Palestinians. We want to live in peace with them. We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel."
He did not say what these powers were or what dangers stem from calling "home rule" a "state"; he left these issues vague. But all those well-versed in the fine print of the envisioned two-state solution - though very few others - know that the Palestinian state is not expected to have the powers of a normal state. It will not be free to bring in all the arms and military units it desires, deny Israel the right to fly over its territory or exercise other powers that practically all sovereign states have.
The same point was made by two leading foreign policy mavens not suspected of pro-Israeli bias: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. Both favor pushing a two-state solution, but Brzezinski suggests "an American line [of troops] along the Jordan River," and Scowcroft favors putting a "NATO peace-keeping force" on the West Bank. The reason is obvious: to prevent the West Bank from being turned into a larger version of Gaza.
There are several problems with this approach. American or NATO troops could be withdrawn overnight. Moreover, the American troops in Iraq and the NATO ones in Afghanistan have been unable to stop terrorists' bombs and rocket attacks in those parts. There is no reason to believe they would do better on the West Bank. Nor can Israel rely on either the beleaguered United States or the conflicted and casualty-averse NATO to show a staying power for peace-keeping that neither mustered in Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti.
Moreover, there are very few precedents for demilitarized states. A two-state solution is understood by most people as one that entails two sovereign states. Once a Palestinian state is established, many in the Muslim world, and surely in Europe, not to mention Russia and China, will hold that "obviously" the new state cannot be stopped from arming itself.
Hence it is important to deal now with the question of whether advocates of the two-state solution really mean two states - exactly the issue Netanyahu raised. If the answer is a hobbled state, Netanyahu may be right that it better to call it something else. If it is to be a true state, security arrangements other than relying on the U.S. and NATO are called for.
Maybe the new Israeli ambassador to the U.S. can find ways to make this crucial point, such that Israel will be heard and the issue will no longer be swept under the rug.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at George Washington University