Next Wednesday, the "post-election" era will begin in the United States, and President Barack Obama will be free to deal again with the Middle East and its wearisome problems. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will study the outcome of the voting with an eye to its impact on the president's authority, and his desire and ability to intervene in Israeli-Palestinian matters. Until the results are in and assessed, nothing will happen in the peace talks.
Netanyahu rejected Obama's request for a two-month extension of the settlement freeze; the president had wanted quiet on the Middle East front while he concentrated on the midterm elections. For his part, Netanyahu explained that he needed to show "credibility and steadfastness" at home, and indeed the incentives promised by the U.S. president in exchange for the extension did not sway the prime minister. One can surmise that Netanyahu did not want to help Obama ahead of the U.S. elections, and thus annoy the president's Republican rivals.
Netanyahu needs the support of GOP politicians to thwart the pressure coming from the White House. Such support could be critical at this point due to the "paradigm shift" the diplomatic process is currently undergoing - from negotiations to internationalization. In closed discussions, Netanyahu continues to insist that a permanent status accord with the Palestinians can be attained within a year. As he sees it, he is the most optimistic member of the ministerial "forum of seven"; his colleagues in the inner cabinet have serious doubts about the chances of reaching such an agreement. The prime minister is planning to ask Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for another crack at renewal of the peace talks, after the last round collapsed virtually as soon as it began.
But in the meantime, the diplomatic process has progressed to another track: The Palestinians are threatening to turn to the UN Security Council, and ask that it recognize a Palestinian state configured on the 1967 borders. Should such recognition be forthcoming, it would make any Israeli presence beyond the Green Line an illegal trespassing. In principle, such a situation would affect Jewish settlers on West Bank hilltops, Israel Defense Forces soldiers on bases in the territories, and Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall and elsewhere in the Old City of Jerusalem - along with young people who live in the western part of Jerusalem but cross the Green Line en route to Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus.
Such a decision on the part of the UN would mean that the Palestinians are entitled to remove the Israeli encroacher from their lands, and embark on a war of national liberation - under the international body's auspices. Such a development would push Israel into a corner: If it were to vehemently oppose such a move in the UN, it would find itself embroiled in a situation akin to that of the Palestinian leadership in 1947, which rejected the resolution concerning the partition of Palestine. If Israel is seen as rejectionist with respect to the "new" partition resolution, the international community would denounce and isolate it, and perhaps also dispatch troops to enforce removal of IDF forces and evacuation of settlements.
The Palestinian position involving declaration of a state has widespread global backing, and only one thing can prevent the realization of this unsettling scenario: an American veto in the Security Council. Netanyahu will, in months to come, work hard in the diplomatic arena to ensure that such a U.S. veto is in hand; for that purpose, he will mobilize all his supporters in the U.S.
Obama understands that Netanyahu is under pressure, and even promised the prime minister an "umbrella veto" for a year - should Israel renew the settlement freeze for two months. But what would happen after a year? Is Obama trying to make Netanyahu sweat, or is he just using the prospect of withholding a veto to coax Israel into a more serious engagement with the peace talks?
Instead of panicking, Israel might try to turn the tables on the Palestinians. "You want to go to the Security Council?" it could ask them. "Be our guest." Perhaps, instead of waging an all-out war to stave off such a decision in the UN, Netanyahu would negotiate with Obama about the character and content of it, and thus mold it in a way that mitigates any harm to Israeli interests. Netanyahu could, for instance, work to incorporate in such a resolution demands for Israel to be recognized as a Jewish state, for annulling the Palestinian refugees' right of return, for IDF troop deployment in the Jordan Valley, and for preservation of settlement blocs in the West Bank. Should the Palestinians agree to such modifications, Netanyahu would attain the historical agreement he has promised to achieve; should they say no, international pressure on Israel would abate.
This transition from negotiations to internationalization would make life easier for the prime minister at home. Agreement with UN decisions does not require Knesset approval, referenda or elections. Furthermore, this internationalization dynamic could also eliminate some of the prime minister's problems with his coalition. Of course, things could work out differently, and cost Israel dearly: It could be forced to withdraw from the West Bank, to evacuate and compensate some 100,000 settlers, and to agree to the division of Jerusalem. But such compromises would also be the likely results of any agreement reached via direct negotiations with the Palestinians. That being the case, perhaps Israel would be wiser to approach Obama and the international community in the guise of a peace-seeker, rather than as a settlement-hungry rejectionist.
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