Apparent movement from Israel suggests Obama approach may be paying off

The past 48 hours have provided significant evidence of movement by Israel, at least rhetorically, in the direction of cooperating with President Obama’s efforts to restart the peace process with an eye to early significant progress. Ha’aretz reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu has reformulated his “bottom line” on Palestinian statehood from the more restrictive and unworkable version outlined in his address two weeks ago. After a meeting with European officials, Netanyahu listed these as, "The recognition of a Jewish state, demilitarizing a Palestinian state, and recognition that any agreement signed will be the end of the conflict and an end to demands [of Israel]." None of this is likely to prove impossible for Palestinian and American negotiators to deal with. And, significantly, the meetings in Paris and Rome showed that Europeans and the rest of the Quartet are as committed to a settlement freeze as the Americans are. Netanyahu is facing a united front of everyone else, including strong supporters of Israel in Congress, on the settlement issue, and seems to be increasingly desperate for some space in which to maneuver.

Strikingly absent were any demands that strike at the heart of Palestinian sovereignty such as control over the airspace and electromagnetic spectrum in Palestine, which could be the subject of some accommodation of Israeli security concerns but not outside the sovereign authority of the Palestinian state. As for demilitarization, Palestinian leaders have, in reality, been conceptualizing their state as non-militarized for a long time. Palestine will have little need and even less use for a fully-fledged military establishment and the funds needed will be far better spent on education, economic development and health care than on a vainglorious but redundant army. Netanyahu here is presenting a Palestinian intention as an Israeli demand. Obviously an end of conflict agreement would be just that and would signal an end to demands made by both Israel and Palestine on each other.

As for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, even many in Israel recognize the utter meaninglessness and pointlessness of such a demand, and both US and Palestinian officials have dismissed it as irrelevant. Its only practical effect is an effort to foreclose serious negotiations on the right of return, which should serve as a counterweight to the issue of Jerusalem which will constitute the most politically difficult concessions by both sides. The Israelis tried to get away with this at Annapolis and were thwarted not only by the Palestinian delegation but by President Bush himself. At the end of the day, Palestinians may make some meaningless statement in this regard, although Israel like all sovereign nations defines itself, but only after the main issues, especially concerning refugees and Jerusalem are resolved. The main thing is that all parties, including many Israelis and the Obama administration, are well aware that this is partly a red-herring and delaying tactic and partly an effort to foreclose the refugee issue. There is no evidence it will work in either way.

The same report suggests that Israel is proposing a three month settlement freeze with “an exception for some 200 structures which are current in advanced stages of construction,” precisely the kind of face-saving agreement I have been describing on the Ibishblog for weeks that would allow Netanyahu to effectively accept the US conditions while not fracturing his right-wing coalition. Of course, this is a bargaining position, and the administration may well and should push for a more far-reaching agreement. No one has failed to grasp that the biggest single failing of the Oslo process was that it allowed Israel to continue building settlements and making the problem far more difficult to resolve. This is not going to be permitted to happen again, as long as most parties, especially the United States, are committed to securing progress.

If something along these lines develops, Palestinian and Arab reaction will be crucial to ensuring that the “temporary” freeze becomes effectively permanent or extended for enough time to ensure that it does not scupper the resumption of permanent status talks, which would then make additional settlement activity practically unworkable. It is going to be neceesary to prove David Ignatius wrong in his prediction that, "The Obama team is assuming that if it can pressure Israel into a real settlements freeze, the Arabs will respond with meaningful moves toward normalization of relations — which will give Israel some tangible benefits for its concessions. But that hope appears to be misplaced." The Arabs are going to have to play their role – or take deserved blame if the whole project grinds to a halt becuase they have not been willing to do their part.