U.S. to Israel: Never Mind Peace, Just Be Polite

Instead of dissing Defense Minister Ya’alon, Obama should support Mahmoud Abbas’ last-ditch UN effort to save the two-state solution.

Peter Beinart
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Palestinians outside the Muqatah hang a 66-meter-long Palestinian flag bearing 25,000 signatures that flew from Canada to the West Bank. Ramallah, October 28, 2014.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart

The Obama administration is sending a clear message to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government: Destroy the two-state solution all you want. But be polite about it.

In a snub widely reported in the Israeli (though not the American) press, the administration refused Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon’s requests to meet with Joe Biden, John Kerry and Susan Rice. Several accounts cited the White House’s anger at Ya’alon for having called Kerry “messianic and obsessive” and for having derided Obama’s foreign policy as weak. My colleague Chemi Shalev reported that administration officials were also peeved at Ya’alon for having rejected some of the security arrangements Kerry floated in peace talks earlier this year.  Then an unnamed senior administration official told Jeffrey Goldberg that Ya’alon’s boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, was “chickenshit.” 

In snubbing Ya’alon and bashing Bibi, the White House may have been trying to signal that there are consequences to defying the United States. But the real message, as received by Israel’s leaders, has been more like: Defy us more courteously. Despite these rebukes, Netanyahu this week moved ahead with plans to build more than a thousand housing units in East Jerusalem, including in Har Homa, which particularly infuriates Palestinians because it didn’t even become a Jewish neighborhood until Netanyahu created it in 1997 . Bibi did so even though East Jerusalem is already so tense that some are warning of a third intifada. But he did so politely, taking care not to personally insult American officials along the way. And thus, he struck another blow against Palestinian statehood while garnering nothing more than a mild reproach from a State Department spokeswoman. It was a lesson to his less artful defense minister: This is how you play the game.

If the Obama White House wants to change that game, it should stop wasting time dissing Ya’alon and do something that actually gets Israel’s attention: Support Mahmoud Abbas’ effort to set a timeline for Palestinian statehood at the UN. According to recent reports, the White House has not only vowed to veto such a resolution, it has tried pressured Arab countries to make the Palestinians shelve it. If they don’t, the Palestinians fear the U.S. may even delay aid for the reconstruction of Gaza.

All this because Abbas is doing what everyone always tells the Palestinians to do. Unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which insist that Israel only understands force, he’s acting nonviolently. Unlike many younger Palestinians, who have abandoned the two-state solution, he’s still struggling to achieve it.

American diplomats justify their opposition to Abbas’ UN gambit by claiming it represents an end run around peace talks. Nonsense. It’s an effort to make those peace talks real. Netanyahu, after all, has still not publicly committed to a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines. He’s still not put forward a map of where the borders of a Palestinian state might be. He’s rubbished the idea that Israeli troops would ever leave the West Bank. And the Obama administration’s own officials have said he bears the bulk of the blame for the collapse of peace talks earlier this year.

Abbas is not trying to avoid a negotiated deal. Two of the Israelis who know him best, Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres have both testified to his desire for one. What he’s seeking is some way to force the hand of an Israeli government that, if left to its own devices, will bury the two-state solution for good.

Before age or insurrection sweeps Abbas from history’s stage, maybe President Obama should stop worrying about Malcolm Hoenlein and Mark Kirk and do what he thinks is right. After all, he has already won reelection. By next week, the Republicans will have likely won the Senate. Appeasing Bibi’s friends in Washington is increasingly Hillary Clinton’s problem. For Obama, Abbas’ UN bid may represent a last chance to prove that he won’t let the two-state solution die without a fight.

What matters in the U.S.-Israel relationship isn't America’s ability to feel respected as a superpower. It’s Israel’s ability to survive as a democratic Jewish state by ending its immoral, self-destructive occupation of millions of stateless human beings. Snubbing Boogie and insulting Bibi don’t promote that. Helping Mahmoud Abbas just might. 

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