Will the Arabs help Netanyahu escape a settlement freeze?

A regular reader of the Ibishblog asks me, “Why is it that you continue to propose that Israel be enriched for doing what every particle of international law suggests it is obliged to do? If a burglar is caught and offers to return the stolen property if he is treated to an Armani suit and a better apartment, we would rightly laugh hysterically as we cart him off to prison. But when Israel makes an equally preposterous demand for simply conforming to its legal responsibilities, folks like you urge us to leap at the chance to mollify the aggressor. I’m sure you justify your position with reference to some variant of ‘political realism,’ but I believe this is an enormous mistake. If I understand you correctly, you seem to think that confronting a cornered animal will only get you into trouble. I understand, but I think it more unwise to toss the beast a filet or two while it regains its strength and plans its escape."

I think I’ve already explained my logic for why I think the Obama administration ought to be willing to allow Netanyahu some face-saving measures in order to keep his coalition together while he essentially accepts a settlement freeze. Calling it "temporary," is precisely such a fig leaf. A temporary settlement freeze will in effect be permanent, at least until there is a new president in the White House. Minor adjustments such as fulfilling existing contracts (I believe there are 200 buildings in question or so), or other minor details might allow Netanyahu to capitulate in reality while telling his more extreme coalition partners that he has won some kind of valuable concession from the United States. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think a confrontation between the White House and Netanyahu that will in effect drain a great deal of political energy and capital towards replacing the Israeli government at the moment would be a useful development. How much political energy and capital would be left for actual progress after such a grueling and draining process is questionable, and it would certainly reinforce the sense among Israeli politicians that the settlement issue is one to be avoided at all costs since it brings down governments and ends political careers.

You are absolutely right, my arguments are in fact based on not a variant of political realism, but political realism itself, insofar as the term refers to what is required to actually get things done rather than sitting back and demanding them in a way that ensures that nothing happens. This has been a typical Arab and Arab-American approach, and I think it’s high time that we try to understand how diplomacy and American politics can actually function in a way that advances the Palestinian interests rather than allows Israeli colonization to proceed apace. We are experts on the what and why of politics, explaining what we think ought to happen and why it is justified. What we tend to miss, ignore, and even become angry at the mere mention of, is the how. How is an exceptionally important question for any goal-oriented political strategy. And, in such a difficult, delicate and politically charged situation, the how requires finesse, strategic intelligence and nuance. The morality and international law of the situation are beyond question. What is challenging is not making the case of what Israel should do and why, but how to get them to actually do it, especially given the most recent election results.

My urging of the Arab states to reciprocate with the Obama administration’s bold and unprecedented moves on pressuring Israel by expressing a willingness to begin to operationalize the Arab Peace Initiative through diplomatic gestures short of recognition and full relations (which must continue to be contingent on a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians) is a reflection of the understanding that the Obama administration requires political cover and support to maintain its unprecedented stances domestically in the United States and also an understanding that Israel requires political inducements for doing what it must and should, but which any Israeli politician would find exceptionally politically problematic and risky. Like farm animals, individuals and societies can only be moved through a combination of carrots and sticks. All sticks and no carrots is generally ineffective, and standing on principles of morality and international law simply will not work, especially with recalcitrant ideologues like Netanyahu and even more his ultra-right wing coalition partners. No politician is going to take a step that is guaranteed to bring down his government and end his career. No state is going to do something that is politically painful and difficult without being able to show significant benefits for having done that. All I’m asking the Arab states to do is to recognize this reality, and to embrace the logic of their own pronouncements.

Obama and the United States are not going to be able to do this on their own. The United States has unprecedented and unique leverage over Israel, but Israel is a sovereign state and I think we often exaggerate the extent to which the United States is able to enforce its dictates, both as an internal political matter here at home, and much more significantly with regard to another country far away with very specific and limited interests and a powerful and aggressive ideology and national narrative. I do not agree that Israel is a "cornered animal," I think it still possesses a lot of cards and the present tactic appears to be to hunker down and weather the storm. I think the approach you suggest would actually play into their present attitude perfectly, and could actually allow it to succeed. The Obama administration is certainly playing its part, and so is the Palestinian Authority, especially with regard to its security commitments. If the Arab states too were to express a willingness to engage in dpilomatic overtures, as Sec. Clinton said in her Council on Foreign Relations speech "however modest," Israel and the Netanyahu Cabinet would find themselves completely isolated as the sole recalcitrant, uncooperative party. I don’t think this is a tenable or sustainable position for them.

Were the Arab states to continue to insist that the Initiative is an all-or-nothing offer that might then been seen by the West and others as in fact constituting a public relations ploy without substance, this could well be the factor that allows Netanyahu and his allies to wriggle out of the present trap in which they find themselves. I think it would be a tragedy if this were allowed to happen. It is not a question of rewarding criminals. It is a question of achieving tangible, substantial and extremely significant benefits for Palestinian diplomacy and the aim of ending the occupation. A settlement freeze is, and has for a long time been, the sine qua non for progress and for starting Roadmap Phase 4 permanent status talks. The Netanyahu Cabinet understands this perfectly well, which is why they are so adamantly opposed to accepting it. At the moment, it is the name of the game. If the Arabs assist Netanyahu in avoiding this and scuppering the Obama administration’s initiative, it is the Palestinian people and their national cause and rights that will suffer the most. We really don’t have much to gain by simply lecturing or embarrassing Israel. We do have a great deal to gain by helping to force them to accede to a settlement freeze. I think it is the reader’s approach, and not mine, that would help Netanyahu escape a settlement freeze and go ahead with expanding and entrenching the occupation. Political realism is not a pejorative, it is a necessity for effective strategy, effective action, and actual success.

PS– since originally posting this article, I have come across two stories that confirm the grave danger of exactly what I’m talking about. First, Laura Rozen of the outstanding The Cable blog at Foreign Policy magazine reports that Obama’s efforts to get the Arabs to cooperate fell flat during his crucial meeting with the Saudi government during his Middle East trip. An additional article in today’s Haaretz reports that this lack of cooperation is leading to a reassessment of Obama’s approach towards a settlement freeze and towards pushing for the peace process, although thankfully rather than giving up the administration is apparently attempting to find new avenues. But this lack of cooperation from the Arab states is absolutely shameful and entirely destructive.