Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s very public confrontation with President Barack Obama over his reluctance to go to war with Iran to halt its nuclear program brings to mind a confrontation that occurred nearly 25 years ago between President George H. W. Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over the settlements that Israel’s government was establishing in the occupied Palestinian territories.
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At the time, the government of Israel and American Jewish organizations were seeking U.S. housing loan guarantees to help finance Israel’s absorption of Jewish refugees who were leaving the Soviet Union in large numbers. President Bush agreed to provide the guarantees, but asked Israel to cease its illegal settlement construction. He pointed out that given the fungibility of money, U.S. financial assistance would be going to fund an activity the U.S. and the entire international community deemed illegal and intended to preempt negotiations over the disposition of the occupied territories by creating irreversible “facts on the ground.”
Shamir refused to end settlement construction, and American Jewish organizations sponsored a large rally in Washington D.C. on September 12, 1991 in opposition to President Bush’s stand, demanding that the issue of the settlements not be allowed to overshadow the critical humanitarian need of providing assistance for Russian Jews arriving in Israel.
Apparently it did not occur to Shamir, or to the American Jewish leaders, that the dispossession of the Palestinian people caused by the settlements might be creating as serious a humanitarian problem as the one they were seeking to resolve for Soviet Jews.
In 1965, as director of international affairs for the National Jewish Community Relations Council, I organized the first national demonstration in Washington that served to help place the plight of Soviet Jews on the American Jewish agenda. And in 1991, at the time of the aforementioned rally, I served as national director of the American Jewish Congress, an organization that played a pioneering role in the struggle to free Soviet Jews. But I saw Prime Minister Shamir’s refusal to halt the settlement project even if it meant foregoing what he claimed was financing that was critical to the success of that struggle as implying that the settlement movement’s land grabs were more important than the fate of Soviet Jews. It suggested an order of priorities that undermined the moral justification for the urgency claimed by Israel and American Jewish organizational leaders for the loan guarantees demanded from the U.S. administration.
I shared these views with General Brent Scowcroft, at the time the president’s national security advisor. When he met afterwards with an AIPAC delegation who told him that the American Jewish community is united in opposition to President Bush’s stand on this issue, Scowcroft informed them he knew that was not so.
The dishonesty of Shamir’s position in his confrontation with Washington closely parallels the dishonesty of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position in his confrontation with President Obama over Iran’s nuclear program; in both instances Israeli prime ministers resorted to deception to shield their government’s illegal settlement project.
Netanyahu has demanded repeatedly that the U.S. commit itself to going to war to halt Iran’s nuclear program because he is convinced the nuclear weapon Iran seeks to develop is intended to inflict another Holocaust on Israel’s Jews. But if Netanyahu really believes this, why has he not taken the one measure that would predictably deprive Iranian leaders of their only rationale for their hostility towards Israel – an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines in a peace accord with the Palestinians? That would not only remove the threat of the bomb but likely normalize relations with much of the Arab and Islamic world, a normalization held out by the Arab Peace Initiative that Netanyahu and his predecessors have done their best to ignore.
Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories would be a far more certain answer to the existential threat Netanyahu claims faces Israel than an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would be rebuilt by Iran with even greater determination and popular support in a matter of at most a few years.
Former President Ahmadinejad as well as his predecessor stated publicly that a peace accord acceptable to the Palestinians would be acceptable to Iran, because Iranians need not be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. And while President Hassan Rohani has clearly denied making a statement, falsely attributed to him by official Iranian news agencies, that Israel is “a sore that must be removed,” Netanyahu’s spokesman insisted that even if he did not say it, that’s what he must be thinking!
If Netanyahu is convinced Iranians intend another Holocaust against the Jews in Israel, are the settlements worth risking such a tragedy? To pose the question is to expose the disingenuousness of his rants about the mortal dangers facing Israel. Netanyahu correctly noted at last year’s memorial observance for Yitzhak Rabin that the assassinated prime minister also saw the Iranian nuclear program as a danger. But Rabin did not construe that danger to be another Holocaust, nor was he prepared to indulge Jewish religious and chauvinistic obsessions with territory to justify a predatory land-grabbing policy.
Ironically, it is that policy that has created the kind of existential threat to Israel that Netanyahu attributes to Iran. As several Israeli prime ministers and Secretary John Kerry have warned, the loss of a two-state solution – which is the goal of Israel’s settlement project – may well end Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
By accepting the pre-1967 armistice line (with mutually agreed swaps) as Israel’s border in the renewed peace talks begun in Washington by Secretary Kerry, Netanyahu would not be giving up anything that rightfully belongs to the State of Israel. What he would be giving up is the settlers’ and his own efforts to create “facts on the ground” that will do to Palestinians what he claims Iran intends to do to Israel: Remove their national home from the map of the Middle East.
If the renewed peace talks are to have even the slightest chance of succeeding, the U.S. must finally begin calling things by their right name.
Henry Siegman is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former Senior Fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.