Time for the U.S. to Disturb Israel's Comfort Zone

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One way of interpreting last week’s election is that Israel just put up a big “Do Not Disturb” sign: We are rejigging domestic burden sharing until further notice. That, though, is of little interest to the outside world as long as Israel remains in the business of illegal occupation and pursues regional ambitions that impact developments in Iran and also Syria, Egypt and beyond.

Coalition details matter, but a picture is already taking shape. Netanyahu is a known quantity – a speech from almost four years ago at Bar Ilan University no longer generates rosy expectations, and his pro-annexationist Knesset faction members have been taken note of. Yair Lapid and his MKs are a known unknown – profiles have been scoured, but political practicalities and group behaviour traits will take time to emerge. The other coalition variables and how they impact the territorial question can been discounted as window dressing – Naftali Bennett offers an excuse for inaction via constraints imposed by the settler right, while Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz offer a fig leaf for international consumption via the reasonable center. The world has been here before. It has experience of Bibi’s schtick and how the pantomime villain (remember Avigdor Lieberman?) is deployed one day and the good fairy (Ehud Barak) the next.

It is on the regional policy front, that Netanyahu remains something of an enigma, and regarding which his appointments to the post of defence minister and to the security cabinet will be most keenly anticipated. Will a Netanyahu who is very possibly in his last term – somewhat wounded and weakened and with little legacy to boast of – be a more risk-taking leader regarding Iran (an issue largely absent in the election campaign) or even Syria, or have his increasingly burlesque-style military threats lost their menace?

For now at least, the prevailing mood in Western capitals is that on this front a more “containable” Netanyahu has been returned to office.

On the more stagnant Israel/Palestine file, Western policy makes are confronted with a dilemma. They are unlikely to be too impressed by a new Israeli government that states its commitment to a resumption of the peace process while adamantly refusing to clearly adopt two states as part of its coalition platform. Every conflict develops its own lingua franca and in Israel/Palestine-speak more “peace process” translates into a more-of-the-same approach, facilitating an Israeli avoidance of hard choices and the creation of facts on the ground.

One option will be to make a virtue of an Israeli government that seeks its way back to the comfort zone of peace talks, and whose interest in settling West Bank hilltops does not come with an insistence on shouting from those hilltops.

Israel’s government-in-waiting could be a partner for relaxing the unpredictability that has entered the regional scene in recent months. A return to the Potemkin world of peace process negotiations could walk the Palestinian leadership back from their diplomatic steer towards the UN and international law and could temper the Israeli settlement excesses of recent months. It might also allow for the stabilization of a financially-endangered Palestinian Authority, assuming Israel desists from its withholding of PA tax revenue, and for ceasefire understandings between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza to take root. In support of this approach, the case will be made that the attention of the region is anyway focussed elsewhere, and that a divided Palestinian polity is anyway in no position to embark on a far-reaching conflict resolution agenda.

The drawbacks inherent in this approach are obvious – the alternative to de-occupation is not to stand still but rather to witness more occupation, settlements and encirclement of Palestinian East Jerusalem. One cannot apply the handbrake to this issue when it is perched on such a steep incline, rolling away from any feasible two-state horizon. And Western diplomats are keenly aware that the unresolved issue of Palestinian disenfranchisement complicates everything else they are trying to do in the region, as well as their own national security, especially at a time of regional instability and democratic openings.

U.S. Secretary of State designate John Kerry touched on both of these points in his recent Senate Confirmation hearing. Kerry first acknowledged that “if we can’t be successfulthe door, or window the possibility of a two-state solution could shut on everybody” and went on to assert during Q&A that, “So much of what we aspire to achieve and what we need to do globally, what we need to do in the Maghreb and South Asia, South Central Asia, throughout the Gulf, all of this is tied to what can or doesn't happen with respect to Israel-Palestine.”

So there will be some inclination amongst America’s national security leadership quartet (Obama, Biden, Kerry and Hagel) to at least test the waters for a more forward-leaning approach on Israel/Palestine. And they will likely find an eager partner in Europe. But to be sustainable and capture President Obama’s ongoing attention, necessitates a plan offering credible prospects of success. That won’t happen via a race back to the failed and flawed familiarity of bilateral negotiations.

It requires a re-think and setting out the table for a four year push. A plan that rectifies existing shortcomings such as the impunity that allows Israel to avoid consequences for its actions (notably settlements), and active support for a unified Palestinian national movement and political platform, with the U.S. outsourcing what it cannot do to partners in Europe, the region and beyond.

Israel will only flip that “Do Not Disturb” sign to “Please Help Us Clear Up This Forty-Five Year Occupation Mess” if the status quo becomes tangibly untenable - that is the message to the world from this election.

Daniel Levy is director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in London. He is also senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a board member of the New Israel Fund.

Obama has privately said that Netanyahu is isolating Israel internationally.Credit: AFP

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