Monthly Archives: March 2010

Precisely why there is a crisis between Israel and the United States

For anyone with the least doubts about exactly why there is a political crisis between the United States government and the Netanyahu Cabinet in Israel — although not a strategic crisis between the two countries — or why this crisis may deepen dramatically in the coming months and years, Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon has been kind enough to clarify everything in today’s issue of Yedioth Ahronoth in Hebrew. In an interview with reporter Yuval Karni, Boogie laid out the “thinking” of the extreme right wing of the current Israeli cabinet with breathtaking shamelessness and astonishing frankness. Everyone in the White House and Congress, and all Americans for that matter, should take careful note of what this gentleman has to say about what is almost universally recognized to be a core American national security priority, and take the measure of precisely how delusional and dangerous this kind of thinking truly is and what it implies for both American interests and US-Israel relations.

First off, Boogie is quite clear that all dealings with the United States on peace and the whole thrust of Israeli diplomacy regarding negotiations is a conscious deception, at least from his point of view: “Some of what we have to do is maneuver with the American administration and the European establishment, which are also nourished by Israeli elements, which create the illusion that an agreement can be reached.” So, the stupid Americans have to be manipulated into accepting the illusion that the Israeli government, or at least his wing of it, has the least interest or belief in peace. In other words, they have to be successfully lied to. A good example of this kind of “maneuver” in his eyes is the so-called settlement freeze: “We had to do a diplomatic maneuver, and we went with the lesser of the evils.? And all of this deception is required because, “I say out of knowledge, nobody in the forum of seven [the inner Netanyahu cabinet] thinks that we can reach an agreement with the Palestinians.” So much for American national security priorities and interests!

In his eyes, the American and international consensus regarding the need for a two-state peace agreement and other land-for-peace deals is absurd and not to be considered for a second: “Why is it taken for granted that in order to obtain peace, we must withdraw? As far as I am concerned, there is no discussion of this at all. No discussion.” Asked about the prospect of annexing occupied territory, Boogie says blandly, “We will get to that. At least in the settlement blocs.”

For Ya’alon, the problem between the two governments is entirely due to the Americans and their idiotic misperceptions: ?There are people in America [i.e., the Obama administration and much of the foreign policy establishment] who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main cause of instability in the Middle East, and this perspective has support in the administration, but what can we do?” In other words, Israel has no responsibility, its policies are irrelevant to regional stability or politics, and there is nothing Israel can do one way or the other to influence the Middle Eastern scene.

In Boogie’s eyes, the biggest reason for the political confrontation is, again, American stupidity, most specifically in not recognizing the invalidity and “failure” of the land-for-peace formula: “…the idea of land for peace has failed. We got land for terror in Judea and Samaria and land for rockets in Gaza. What, the Americans do not see it?” What a bunch of idiots! It’s very clear that Boogie, the Minister for Strategic Affairs no less, is among those Israelis who feel very strongly that Palestinians do not and cannot pose any kind of strategic threat to Israel and that an agreement with them is neither possible nor desirable, let alone necessary. However, “delegitimization [in the eyes of the international community] is a strategic threat.? Needless to say, he does not recognize the glaringly obvious and intimate connection between the policies to which he is committed, and that are so shocking and obnoxious to the international community, and the international “delegitimization” that concerns him so much.

As for the American public, Boogie actually seems to think there is a possibility that most Americans might side with him and Netanyahu, and not President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton: “There is sweeping support for Israel in the United States. I am not sure where the American public stands on this crisis, whom it supports more.” It’s quite clear that this individual has no appreciation whatsoever for the depth of anger among the US government and public regarding the repeated insults delivered first to Biden and then to Obama himself. This is not surprising perhaps, given that he believes that it is all simply the result of American stupidity. And, if anyone was questioning where the impulse was coming from to deliberately announce settlement activities in occupied East Jerusalem strategically timed to embarrass and insult senior American leaders, or what type of mentality would consider that in any sense a good idea, I think they now have their answer quite clearly.

It’s hard to know which is Boogie’s most impressive delusion, but it might be his hilarious protestation that “I come with clean hands.” Or, it might be his insistence that everything is just peachy keen with Israel: “Why do you say that everything is stuck? The country is being built up, the economy is thriving, there are investments in infrastructure and in education, settlement, water projects, alternative energy. What is stuck here? The country is blossoming.” The captain of the Titanic couldn’t have put it any better. Iceberg? What iceberg?

The obvious temptations are to dismissively say either:
1) this guy is cuckoo for cocoa puffs, and not to be taken seriously
2) this is just strategic political pandering to the extreme right, and also not to be taken seriously.

And to be sure, one of the most salient features of this second Netanyahu premiership has been a careful tacking between measures designed to placate the Americans on the one hand and the settlers on the other hand. This Prime Minister has even been careful to always balance statements pleasing to the settlers with every statement pleasing to the Obama administration. So, this could well be an effort on Netanyahu’s part to unleash Boogie in all his unhinged glory to hurl as much red meat as possible in the direction of the extreme right in preparation for the steps that are going to be required to mend fences with the Americans. It is definitely possible to read this as a not-so-subtle message to the Israeli extremist community not to get too upset about what is going have to be done vis-à-vis the United States in the coming days in order to restore relations. In other words, these comments certainly demonstrate why there is a crisis between the American and Israeli governments, but they don’t necessarily reveal the deepest strategy of the current prime minister. It could all be read as part of an extremely elaborate series of strategic ploys to balance irreconcilable constituencies domestically and internationally. That’s a distinct possibility.

But what if Boogie really does reflect, if not Netanyahu’s fundamental personal attitudes, at least the genuine positions of the Cabinet as a whole, or at very least of the “seven?” First of all, that guarantees an almost limitless series of confrontations with the Obama administration that would be very difficult to contain and would either lead to the forced dissolution of this coalition due to outside pressure or a political deterioration so grave with the United States that it begins to become a real strategic issue between the countries. If the United States regards it as a strategic imperative to have a peace agreement and Israel regards it as a strategic imperative not to, then the confrontations will inevitably shift from the political to the strategic register over time. How far it can go depends on too many variables to decisively evaluate, and it seems unlikely that the Israeli public would sit back and let it go that far, but with outlandish comments such as this made so breezily and so publicly, one certainly has to wonder.

One also has to wonder what that wing of the Israeli national security establishment, especially in and around the military, which may be skeptical about the mechanism for achieving it but certainly recognizes the strategic need for an agreement with the Palestinians, must be thinking when they read this from their Minister of Strategic Affairs in Israel’s most widely-circulated Hebrew daily. Only a few weeks ago at the Washington Institute, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “A successful peace process ? especially with the Palestinians… is a compelling imperative for the state of Israel.” He called this, “the uppermost responsibility of any Israeli government.” I think it’s pretty clear that not only does he mean this, but that he speaks for and represents that wing of the government that is closest to much of the uniformed defense establishment in Israel.

The always-impressive Shai Feldman of Brandeis University said at a panel on which we were both speaking the other day at Boston College that there are three separate governments in the present Israeli cabinet: a Barak government aligned with the military and the defense establishment that understands the strategic need for an agreement with the Palestinians; a Lieberman government aligned with the settlers and the ultra-right that does not think any such agreement is either possible or desirable; and a Netanyahu government that likes to play the referee and has constructed an aura of ambiguity on the question of peace. Boogie is reportedly very close with Bibi, so given Feldman’s analysis, the question would be: is he part of the Lieberman/ultra-right camp that has its own perspective but does not really dominate or define the thinking of the Prime Minister or the Cabinet as a whole; or is he part of the Netanyahu camp and these words are a roundabout way of the Prime Minister himself expressing his views and explaining, in Hebrew, to his Israeli audience why there is suddenly a crisis with the moronic gringos? I think the answer to that question will determine a very great deal about where not only peace, but US-Israel relations, go in the coming months and years.

Obama versus Netanyahu: this IS a big fucking deal!

By now, everyone who thinks the present confrontation between Pres. Obama and his administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition allies is meaningless, a "charade," or even more ridiculously, a "joke," should be feeling pretty silly. It’s become obvious that not only is this not "no big deal," this is, as one eminent American statesman might put it, "a big fucking deal." It’s still a political crisis between politicians and governments, and not a strategic crisis between countries, and the foundations of the US-Israel special relationship and commitment to Israel’s security are unshaken. But the depth, let alone the reality, of the Obama-Netanyahu crisis of policy and of trust has degenerated very significantly since it erupted during VP Biden’s trip to the region. It is extraordinary that, having been invited to the White House, Netanyahu would need to leave the first, lengthy, meeting, then consult with his entourage, request a second meeting which was also long, and leave without a single word of substance from either side to the public. It’s absolutely obvious that the meetings were tense and unpleasant, and that no agreement was reached.

The outstanding Laura Rozen of Politico today reports: “’Apparently Bibi is very nervous, frantically calling his ‘seven,’ trying to figure out what to do,” one Washington Middle East hand said Wednesday. ‘The word I heard most today was ‘panic.’" This rings exactly true. What other reaction is he supposed to have to being suddenly confronted with an American president who is simply not going to take it anymore and is laying down some very firm conditions? Nathan Gutmann in The Forward lists the following demands supposedly placed before Netanyahu by Sec. Clinton during her apparently angry 45 minute phone call following the Biden fiasco:
Cancel the Ramat Shlomo building plan for 1,600 units, which sparked the crisis.
Expand Israel’s 10-month moratorium on settlements to include East Jerusalem.
Offer the Palestinians a number of goodwill gestures to relieve the weight of the occupation in the West Bank.
Agree to discuss core issues — not just procedural ones, as Netanyahu desired — in upcoming proximity talks arranged by Washington between Israel and the Palestinians.
According to Gutmann and many other sources, Netanyahu agreed to the two planks that don’t involve Jerusalem settlements, and, as I’ve been writing about recently, apparently caved in on permanent status issues which has been the most important point of contention in recent months.

It’s important to step back and recall the chronology leading up to the present confrontation: first there was the slap in the face to the administration during the Biden visit over the 1,600 settler housing units in occupied Arab East Jerusalem. This led to a firestorm of angry condemnations from various senior American officials. Netanyahu was required to issue a climbdown, which involved agreeing to gestures towards the Palestinians and the inclusion of all permanent status issues in proximity talks. This was communicated both verbally and in a letter to the President which remains unreleased. That seemed to satisfy the White House and both parties engaged in a ratcheting down tensions. Netanyahu was invited by Mitchell to meet with the President on Tuesday. When he arrived in the United States, Netanyahu gave a belligerent and defiant speech at AIPAC, including his ridiculous statement that "Jerusalem is not a settlement," as if anyone had ever claimed that Jerusalem is a settlement. The point the administration and everyone else is making is not that Jerusalem IS a settlement, but that there are settlements IN Jerusalem. It was a shameless performance of both defiance and demagoguery, in marked contrast to Sec. Clinton’s balanced, constructive approach at the same conference. The real turning point, however, was the announcement of 20 new settler housing units in occupied Arab East Jerusalem on the very day of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. In other words, Pres. Obama was being treated to a slightly less dramatic version of the insult delivered to VP Biden only two weeks ago.

This was obviously too much for the administration, greatly strengthened by its recent victory on healthcare and the emergence of an Obama presidency not to be trifled with. By all indications, Netanyahu was treated to an unexpected and rather severe dressing down by Obama. Among other things, it would appear the President reiterated the American demands first issued by Sec. Clinton, and that Netanyahu was told in no uncertain terms that his written letter to Obama was unsatisfactory and required rewriting (also known as "clarification"). That the meeting was tense and unfortunate from the Israeli point of view is strongly indicated by the dead silence from the administration regarding it, with no gesture of warmth or friendship whatsoever, let alone a photo op. Probably even more extraordinary was the sequence of the first long meeting, followed by a confab within the Israeli delegation, a request for a second meeting, another long Netanyahu-Obama meeting which did not produce an agreement either, and then negotiations between senior officials that went on until at least 2 AM, also without resolution. Also extraordinary was Netanyahu’s cancellation of all his public events and meetings yesterday in order to deal with the crisis. Rozen’s quotation about "frantic calls" and "panic" therefore, as I say, rings true.

So, it would certainly appear that Netanyahu and his government have miscalculated dreadfully and now find themselves in an impossible situation. For many months now Netanyahu has been successfully triangulating between the demands of his right-wing coalition partners and the expectations of Washington, but the Biden fiasco followed by this second, obviously carefully calculated, rebuff to the administration on Jerusalem settlements has made that now impossible. Further confrontations are almost inevitable once this current row is resolved, as long as there is this fundamental contradiction between his political interests on the one hand and diplomatic requirements on the other hand. How Netanyahu is possibly going to deal with this, short of restructuring his coalition, I’m not sure at all. It seems clear that the administration is determined, buoyed by its recent success, and utterly fed up with the nonsense coming out of Tel Aviv.

So, as Aluf Benn put it in today’s Ha’aretz, Netanyahu leaves the US as a "disgraced, isolated and weaker" actor who, "instead of setting diplomatic agenda, has surrendered control of it." Never mind the panic at being confronted with an empowered, determined American president. Netanyahu even looks like a man who doesn’t control his own government, given his insistence that he had no knowledge of these repeated insulting announcements perfectly timed to coincide with diplomatic encounters with the most senior American officials. If he knew, he is culpable, but if he didn’t know, that’s even worse, as he looks incompetent and out of touch. Either way, it’s a disaster for him. He may have gotten political mileage up till now from demagoguery on Jerusalem among Jewish Israelis, but surely the diplomatic price has now become far too high, and must begin to translate into a political price as well. No one can pretend that Netanyahu has prevailed in this confrontation.

This means the Palestinians are in a very advantageous, but also very delicate situation themselves. They have a golden opportunity, indeed a very rare one, to deal with a politically difficult Israeli cabinet in a very effective manner with American and international support, and to advance their position considerably and get closer to the United States. But they need to know that following this confrontation with Israel, the administration will be more than willing to take on the Palestinians and the other Arabs as well. If they are prepared to confront Netanyahu, there won’t be much holding them back in confronting the PLO leadership or the Arab states. They need to remember that in Obama they are dealing with an ally and friend who is doing the heavy lifting now for their benefit, as well as in the US and enlightened Israeli interests as well. It’s therefore strategically wise on multiple registers for the Palestinians and the other Arabs to be as constructive and forthcoming as possible. If the United States does not believe you’re going to run with the ball, they will not pass it to you, and there is a grave danger that having encountered a recalcitrant, obdurate and belligerent Netanyahu and faced him down, if they feel they are going to encounter similar resistance on the Arab side, they may with great reluctance choose to walk away.

The depth of the opportunity is only emphasized by Sec. Gates repeating today recent statements by Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Mullen that emphasize Israel’s policies and, more importantly, the lack of a two state peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians negatively affects US strategic interests, and, either explicitly or implicitly, the safety of US forces in the Arab and Islamic world. There is a reconsideration of American strategic interests, with Palestine and an end to the occupation at its very center, in the present worldview dominating Washington discourse and administration policy. To not take advantage of this would be utter madness. Extremely unhelpful statements from some PLO officials and bizarre, almost insane, ideas floating around the Arab League about rescinding the Arab Peace Initiative, or any suggestion of not returning to proximity talks or putting up unworkable objections at this stage after all that has been done by the administration would be an unthinkable blunder. Through Netanyahu’s gross miscalculations and the administration’s firmness, determination and new level of authority, the Palestinians and the Arabs have a golden opportunity in the present circumstance that they must take advantage of or accept their share of the blame for the probably dire consequences.

Netanyahu’s reluctant gift to Palestine

The Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not being honest with his fellow Israelis by insisting that settlement building is compatible with a peaceful future between Israelis and Palestinians, or that the colonisation of occupied East Jerusalem “in no way harms” Palestiniansand is not in any sense different from building in Tel Aviv.

Limiting or freezing settlement construction has been at the heart of all recent peace efforts because the settlements make the borders of a future Palestinian state more difficult to conceptualise, let alone determine, and increase the frequently belligerent Israeli constituency opposed to meaningful territorial compromise.

At the political level, they make permanent status negotiations very difficult for the Palestinian leadership because of the legitimate Palestinian fear of being once again drawn into a peace process that is all process and no peace. During the Oslo era in the 1990s, when Palestinians believed they were negotiating an end to the occupation, in fact the number of Israeli settlers more than doubled. Because of this experience and the practical problems settlements create for the creation of a Palestinian state, settlement building undermines the viability and credibility of negotiations and negotiators. Settlement activity ensures that the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians is not a manageable flat plane but rather is a downward spiral of ever-increasing complication, bitterness and difficulty.

However, in his present coalition Netanyahu is surrounded by people to his political right who are committed to settlement activity, especially in occupied East Jerusalem. While he presented the partial, limited settlement moratorium to the United States as a major concession, his government has taken numerous steps to ensure continued expansion of the Israeli presence in much of the West Bank and above all in Jerusalem. The recent confrontation with the Obama administration over new settler housing units in Jerusalem announced during the US vice president Joe Biden’s trip to the region reflected the unbridgeable divide between Washington’s expectations and the demands of the rightwing parties in Netanyahu’s coalition.

The confrontation has placed Israel settlement activity under an even more powerful microscope than it already has been. Israeli colonisation of East Jerusalem is not just a Palestinian problem now, it has become an American problem as well, and that is a serious complication for any Israeli leader who wants to preserve political relations with the Obama administration.

It appears that the confidential new US-Israel understandings that defused the confrontation involved Israel’s agreement that upcoming negotiations will include all core issues, including Jerusalem, something Netanyahu had been trying to avoid for many months. Proximity talks are therefore now likely to be structured in the way Palestinians have wanted, and not on Israeli terms. Netanyahu also reportedly agreed to ease the siege of Gaza. Finally, although details on the new understanding regarding settlement activity in Arab East Jerusalem are quite murky, clearly it is going to be more politically difficult and costly for Israel from now on.

Obviously, all of this is far short of a real settlement freeze, and serious progress on peace is eventually going to require that. However, the confrontation has delivered significant gains to the Palestinians. The bottom line is this: the Palestinians had been willing, although extremely reluctant, to go back into proximity talks without a clear agenda or terms of reference. Now, they will be able to go into them with much more satisfactory arrangements. Clearly this is a gain to be built upon, not squandered.

How to read the new US-Israel understanding

In the week immediately following VP Biden?s visit to Israel and the firestorm of controversy over the announcement of 1600 new settler housing units in occupied East Jerusalem, tensions between the US and Israel bubbled over in a most unusual manner. Administration officials, including Sec. Clinton, used language normally reserved for the likes of Iran and North Korea in order to emphasize how appalled they were at the brazen defiance. Both sides quickly developed a strong interest in containing and then reducing tensions once the United States had made its point crystal clear, and both Pres. Obama and PM Netanyahu moved quickly to do so. However, Israel was required to provide what are apparently substantial and significant assurances to the United States in private and, it would seem, in an unpublished and unreleased written document as well. Since Special Envoy Mitchell has invited Netanyahu to meet with the President tomorrow during his trip to Washington, obviously the American side is satisfied with whatever climbdown it has received from the Israelis. This is worth considering in some detail, especially from a Palestinian point of view.

First of all, it seems clear that given the outrage and exceptionally strong language coming out of Washington that the Obama administration would not have simply let the matter pass. Israel was going to have to earn release from the rhetorical doghouse. So in spite of skepticism, both logic and the known facts indicate strongly that whatever assurances Israel has provided to Washington are substantial and significant. I think many people are somewhat confused about what exactly has been at stake, and therefore are misreading this development as some kind of victory or successful defiance by Netanyahu.

Settlements were indeed the central issue between the US and Israel for many months, especially in the early fall of 2009. However, after his meetings with both Netanyahu and Pres. Abbas at the UN in October, Pres. Obama made it clear that while the United States was not satisfied with Israel?s positions or the partial, temporary and, it is now clear, largely fraudulent settlement moratorium, nonetheless Washington wanted to move on to the reestablishment of permanent status negotiations rather than continuing to be mired in the settlement conundrum. What became clear as Washington attempted and failed to get Netanyahu to agree to a complete settlement freeze is that beyond his own personal and ideological inclinations, it is unlikely that his cabinet would survive any such step and therefore there is no chance under the present circumstances that he is going to take it. They were asking for something they really couldn?t get, and when they realized that they decided to keep the issue on the table but prioritize something else.

It was at this stage that Palestinian reluctance to return to permanent status negotiations for a complex set of diplomatic, practical and political reasons became a defining feature of international perceptions and began to really harm Palestinian standing in the United States and the rest of the West. Netanyahu was able to skillfully deploy this reluctance in order to paint himself as ?the one who made positive gestures and who wants to get back into talks right away,? and the Palestinians as ?the ones who say no.? The political problem for the Palestinians was that they really didn?t have anything substantial and meaningful to show their public to justify a return to negotiations in spite of the lack of a settlement freeze. Hence the idea of proximity talks, Arab League permission and other indecorous measures designed to ease the PLO back into talks in spite of the attendant grave political difficulties. But there were other more practical and serious diplomatic problems with the idea of getting back into permanent status negotiations, even proximity talks, without any preconditions. The obvious, rational and legitimate Palestinian fear is getting back into a peace process that is all process and no peace, and that drags on indefinitely without any significant progress while settlement construction continues apace and the borders of Palestine become increasingly difficult to conceptualize, let alone determine.

Therefore, the biggest sticking point from a practical and diplomatic point of view to a resumption of negotiations in recent months has been the lack of adequate terms of reference for the negotiations that would define exactly what Israelis and Palestinians are talking about. On this point too, as with a settlement freeze, the Obama administration basically sided with the Palestinians in theory and the Israelis in practice, in that they have been pushing for terms of reference, assurances and other structures that would give the negotiations substantive meaning, but urging the parties to return to talks even if the topics were not clearly defined because Israel preferred keeping everything as vague as possible. One can understand this politically from Netanyahu?s point of view: getting into a negotiation with the Palestinians about the future of Jerusalem is probably more politically dangerous for him than any notion of a settlement freeze. On the other hand, any negotiation that doesn?t include core permanent status issues like Jerusalem are unlikely to be meaningful. And, there is a grave danger for him that should talks restart and the Palestinians prove forthcoming, constructive and clever, the colossal distance between his position and that of the Obama administration, and what may be a fundamental incompatibility between the two, will become increasingly clear. There is a real and extremely dangerous possibility for him to emerge as being perceived by all parties as the main problem once permanent status talks really get going. Demagoguery on Jerusalem might be good politics in Israel, but it?s potentially disastrous diplomacy, if the Palestinians and the other Arabs don?t provide endless ways of avoiding the topic.

It seems pretty clear that whatever the Israelis have agreed to involves, if not detailed and constructive terms of reference as such, at least putting all permanent status issues, including Jerusalem, on the table for upcoming proximity talks. This is, and should be seen as, a huge gain for both the Obama administration and the Palestinians and an eventuality that Netanyahu was trying very assiduously to avoid. In some sports this sort of thing is called an ?unforced error,? in which the blunder of one side strengthens the position of the other without the advantaged party actually having to do anything. The bottom line is this: before the Biden-settlements fiasco, the Palestinians were willing although extremely reluctant to go back into proximity talks without a clear agenda or terms of reference. Now, it?s clear that they will be able to go into them with much more satisfactory arrangements from their perspective. It seems to me one of the few ways to badly mishandle this would be to sulk and refuse to reengage the talks they had already agreed to. Clearly this is a gain to be pocketed and built upon, not squandered.

Other aspects of the US-Israel understanding reached last week appear to include some kind of easing of the blockade of Gaza, which is morally urgent and which should politically benefit the PA, which will have achieved it, rather than Hamas. In any event, the siege plainly benefits Hamas politically, and is the principal factor in the slow evolution of what is increasingly looking like a totalitarian theocracy in the Strip. Almost any opening to the outside world should weaken or slow that lamentable process. So, that?s also a good thing, and without this confrontation, it probably wouldn?t have happened either.

The most difficult subject, of course, is the problem of the settlements themselves. It?s especially tricky because on this issue the politics and diplomacy are particularly murky, as is the nature of the understanding arrived at last week. Clearly as long as he is working with this group of coalition partners, and possibly under any circumstances, Netanyahu is not going to countenance a meaningful and thorough settlement freeze, and certainly not in Jerusalem. But it?s also clear that the Obama administration is serious about its categorical opposition to increased settlement construction, including in Jerusalem, especially in Arab neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem. Therefore, it?s extremely difficult to read the reputed ?don?t ask, don?t tell? arrangement on Jerusalem settlements. Will it in practice mean that Israel reserves the right to colonize East Jerusalem, and may even plan settlement activity, but in reality not conduct any, unless specifically approved by Washington? Or will it mean that settlement activity in East Jerusalem goes ahead as planned, but remains unannounced? My guess is that the reality is something in between the two, that Netanyahu publicly insists colonization will continue in East Jerusalem, but assures the Obama administration that it will be very limited and close to zero in practice. However, if this is true, I?m sure he and his bureaucrats will try to ?cheat? as much as they can within this framework. I?m also very skeptical that any aspect of this understanding made it into the reputed written document.

Of course this is not satisfactory from the American, international and especially Palestinian perspective. However, it too is useful in that it places Israel settlement activity, especially in East Jerusalem under an even more powerful microscope than it already has been. And, it increases sensitivity in Washington to the problem. In other words, Israeli colonization of East Jerusalem is not just a Palestinian or Arab problem now, it?s become an American problem as well, and that is a serious complication for any Israelis who want to preserve political relationships with the Obama administration. So I think all in all this has been exceptionally useful from a Palestinian perspective, for the following reasons:

1) the proximity talks are now structured in the way Palestinians have wanted, not on Israeli terms;

2) any easing of the siege on Gaza is a good thing morally and politically;

3) settlement activity, especially in East Jerusalem is going to be more politically difficult and costly for Israel after this.

Obviously, this is far short of a settlement freeze, and serious progress on peace is really going to require that. However, I don?t think anyone should fail to note the gains, albeit limited, the Palestinians have been able to extract from this US-Israel confrontation. The main thing now is to build on and not squander them.

How Palestinians should deal with the US-Israel confrontation over settlements

The controversy and confrontation sparked by Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new settler housing units in occupied East Jerusalem during VP Biden’s trip to the region was probably inevitable. The Obama Administration and the Netanyahu Cabinet, especially its right wing including Interior Minister Yishai of Shas who made the decision and the announcement, have been on a collision course for many months. Their visions of long-term peace and short-term negotiation strategy are totally incompatible, and as I’ve noted in the past, we now find ourselves in a most unusual situation in which the American position is closer to the Palestinian perspective on both of these registers than to the Israeli view. The added complication is that because of domestic political considerations, the United States is still politically much closer and provides much more support to the side in the Middle East conflict it now disagrees with more. In other words, yet again, there is a fairly radical gap between policy and politics that is rendering the quest for a reasonable peace agreement, and even reasonable terms for the resumption of negotiations, dysfunctional.

For the Palestinians in this situation, obviously less is more. The controversy has had a life of its own, and the less Palestinians did and do to stoke the flames, at least in any obvious way, the more traction it will have for them. When other people (in this case the Israeli government) are doing your heavy lifting for you, sit back and let it happen. For the most part, Palestinians have done and said what they should have: very little. For those who are wondering why the Ibishblog has been silent on this controversy until now, consider the usefulness sometimes of saying little to nothing, and the silliness of a knee-jerk and adolescent impulse to always want to comment on everything right away, when sometimes judicious silence can be the most effective commentary of all. Netanyahu has managed to dig himself a remarkably deep hole, and it is imperative that Palestinians do not, as they have so many times in the past, pull him out of it through their own miscalculations. This can be done by incautious words as well as ill-considered deeds.

What has happened that is so useful for the Palestinians is that American and international perceptions, especially in Washington, have now been reoriented in an extremely healthy manner. In the last six months of 2009 and into the new year, Netanyahu skillfully managed to tack between the demands of his right-wing coalition partners (and probably his own ideological inclinations) on the one hand and the expectations of the Obama administration on the other hand. He gave enough, but just barely enough, such as his Bar Ilan speech tepidly endorsing a two state outcome and a largely fraudulent “settlement freeze,” to convince many in Washington, and especially in Congress, that he was actually making significant gestures and concessions. The Palestinians found themselves painted as “the ones who say no,” because of their reluctance to return to talks after the settlement freeze and Goldstone fiascoes, and without acceptable assurances and terms of reference and with no timetable.

For perfectly rational domestic political reasons given the series of body blows they endured in the last half of last year, for many months the Palestinian leadership maintained that they simply could not return to permanent status negotiations under the prevailing political conditions. For months they begged for something substantial or even symbolic, no matter how small, that they could present to their public as a rationalization for returning to talks, even though such a return was strongly in their national interest. Again, politics interferes with policy and national strategy. They didn’t get much. Nonetheless, they came under very heavy pressure not only from the United States, but also from the Europeans, to return to negotiations, and it became an imperative for many reasons, not least to shift the appearance of being “the ones who say no,” by finding a politically viable formula to reengage Israel in some manner. The idea of “proximity talks” became more appealing given that they would be attenuated by being indirect, and at the very least not involve any photo opportunities, and the Palestinians felt compelled to seek approval from the Arab League, which they received. This is a measure of the extreme discomfort of the PLO leadership with the situation they found themselves in, since proximity talks and asking Arab permission and cover for what should be strictly a Palestinian decision both hearken back to even-worse-old-days than the present unfortunate circumstances.

Just as the Palestinians have so frequently bailed out the Israelis through colossal blunders, just when things seemed darkest politically for the PLO, Netanyahu and his colleagues charged to the rescue by grossly insulting the Vice President and the United States and by creating the appearance of a wild-eyed determination to continue settlement activity at all costs. The perception that the main problem is the Palestinians saying “no” instantaneously evaporated, replaced by a new international perception that intransigence and extremism on the part of the present Israeli government is, in fact, the main obstacle to serious progress. The delicate balancing act Netanyahu had performed for so many months appeasing both settler-supporting right-wing Israelis and Obama-supporting American Democrats came crashing down in a most dramatic manner. This has been compounded by outrageous statements from Netanyahu’s brother-in-law calling Pres. Obama an “anti-Semite,” and from the journal of his coalition partners in Shas calling the President a “Muslim,” an “Islamic extremist,” and a “stone-throwing Palestinian.” The main Israeli pushback, which has been to focus on the youth wing of Fatah (not the PA as is frequently claimed) naming a square in Ramallah after Dalal Mughrabi gained no traction whatsoever, especially given the kind of people some Israeli streets and squares have been named after throughout the country. This does not, of course, mean that now everyone believes that the Palestinians have performed in an admirable manner or are blameless for the diplomatic stalemate. But it does mean that perceptions of the nature of the diplomatic and political problem have shifted very much in the direction of Israeli responsibility and greatly strengthened the Palestinian position and hand internationally.

Therefore, the most urgent requirement from a Palestinian point of view is not to do or say anything foolish or reckless to shift international attention back to problems emanating from Palestinian positions and to keep the focus on the extent to which the present Israeli government is pursuing policies that are incompatible with long-term peace and even serious progress in negotiations. It is strongly in their interests not to put up any serious resistance towards resumption of proximity talks, which they were already prepared to enter into under much less advantageous circumstances. They should continue to press as hard as possible for terms of reference and assurances that would make negotiations meaningful, but they should not throw up conditions that shift the blame back to them or cast them once again in the untenable position of “the ones who say no.”

It’s important to recognize also that the nature of this US-Israeli confrontation is a political crisis between governments but not a strategic crisis between states. The US-Israel relationship on core matters such as Israeli security is not affected by such political disputes, and it will not be. Therefore, it is extremely important for Palestinians and their allies in the United States to understand the difference between a political and a strategic crisis, and what opportunities actually are presented here and what are misleading fantasies. On the other hand, Israel’s supporters in the United States need to disabuse themselves immediately of the delusion or at least the pretense that this is fundamentally no big deal. It is indeed a crisis, and it pits the US government against a foreign government on an issue of core American national interests.

Many pro-Israel organizations in the United States have, in my estimation, overreached and miscalculated in their reaction to the controversy, most obviously the ADL’s extremely unwise attack on Gen. David Petraeus. But beyond that truly foolish mistake, many pro-Israel organizations essentially sought to shift the blame for the confrontation to Obama and Biden rather than Netanyahu and Yishai. This was never going to wash, since it is distinctly unbecoming for otherwise patriotic American organizations to side with a foreign government in a dispute involving the core national interests of the United States. What makes things more difficult is that most of the well-placed senior foreign policy Jewish Democrats in Congress strongly sided with Obama and Biden, for obvious reasons. First, their inclination is to agree with the United States in a fundamental argument with any foreign power, including Israel, but also significantly they feel strongly tied politically to the Obama administration, and recognize that their own standing in Washington would be adversely affected by a further weakening of the administration’s position. Therefore, the pro-Israel organizations that essentially sought to shift the blame to the United States not only managed to annoy mainstream American society, they were left without their most important allies on the Hill. It is unlikely that this will do lasting and permanent damage to their standing in the United States, but it is also unlikely that everyone will simply forget this incident and pretend it never happened. This has entailed a significant political cost to many of the pro-Israel organizations, although how much can only be calculated as events continue to play out.

The attack on Petraeus was prompted by his comments at a congressional hearing that questioned the effect Israel’s policies and the failure to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are having on the US strategic position in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. Several reports have suggested that in less public settings Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen and others have been even more forthright about an emerging understanding in the US military that Israel’s policies actually endanger American troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. This doesn’t make them anti-Israel, but it does mean that Israel’s behavior is now seen in a very different, and broader light, and is no longer regarded merely as a function of bilateral US-Israel relations. It also means that strategic interests are pushing back against domestic political forces in a novel and, again, very healthy manner.

This new understanding is probably an inevitable consequence of the reassessment in Washington of how international relations in the Middle East and Islamic world actually function. During the Bush era, strategic concerns in the Arab and Islamic world were generally seen as discrete problems to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, separate from each other. In other words, there was an Iraq problem, an Iran problem, an Afghanistan problem, a Syria problem, a Palestine problem, etc. When they were linked, it was in an unrealistic and ham-handed manner as in the one-size-fits-all “Greater Middle East Initiative” for regional democratization that was dead on arrival and discarded before it was ever implemented. In the Obama era, the consensus has shifted to viewing events in the Arab and Islamic world as interdependent and interlocked in a much more realistic manner. Because of this holistic reassessment of regional strategic relations, and a correct evaluation that Palestine and the Israeli occupation are at the center of the Middle Eastern political kaleidoscope, the Obama administration took up the issue of Middle East peace at a very early stage and has not abandoned the project in spite of tremendous setbacks and false starts. This same evaluation has logically lead senior elements in the US military to contextualize Israeli policies and the failure to achieve a peace agreement, or even momentum on peace, in terms of broader US strategic interests. Once the holistic approach is adopted, the idea that this actually costs American lives becomes rather obvious and unavoidable.

However, Palestinians need to take a very sober and cautious approach to dealing with the ongoing US-Israel confrontation over settlements. If they overplay their hand, they will fail to reap any political or diplomatic benefits from what is an extraordinary opportunity. Not only do they have to not overreact, and instead cast themselves as helpful and constructive in contrast to the defiance and obduracy of the Israeli cabinet, they have to understand what is genuinely useful to them and what is not. Palestinians DO benefit from a measure of tension between Israeli and American positions that allows the United States to be more evenhanded and to use its leverage and special relationship with Israel to push Israeli policies in the right direction. However, Palestinians WILL NOT benefit from a boiling over of US-Israeli tensions that produces a level of mistrust that, while not affecting the broader strategic special relationship, prevents any serious US political influence on Israeli policies, and, worse, that might induce an administration to actually walk away from the issue and abandon peace efforts. There is no point in hoping for an end to the US-Israel special relationship, since there is no way of achieving this in the foreseeable future, and no need to achieve it in order to realize an end to the occupation. Palestinians can and should look for opportunities to leverage the special relationship and use it to pursue a goal that is in not only the Palestinian and American national interests, but in Israel’s as well, even if the present Netanyahu government does not fully understand this. That’s an achievable aim, and the present US-Israel confrontation offers a rare and extraordinary opportunity to push the ball towards that goal line.

Why Israel simultaneously both is and is not a “Jewish State”

[NOTE: I delivered this talk at a luncheon with Tal Becker as the other speaker at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 16, 2010.]

In my remarks today I want to look at the evolution of the concept of Israel as a national home for the Jewish people and a ?Jewish state? in international law, then at Israel’s character as a Jewish state, and finally at the way in which the occupation negates that character. My broadest point is that at every level Israel’s status as a national home for the Jewish people and as a Jewish state is dependent on the creation of a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel in peace and security.

I. Israel as a Jewish state in international law

The Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 begins with the phrase, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people?” There are at least two significant aspects to this language worth noting: the Declaration commits to “a national home for the Jewish people,” but not to “a Jewish state,” and to “a national home,” but not “the national home.” National home might be taken to imply state, but it might mean many other things as well. Many have noted the irony of no overt reference to the overwhelming majority of the population of Palestine, the Palestinian Arabs, in the Declaration, and the moral, political and legal difficulties attached to the United Kingdom making such a pledge regarding a territory over which it had, the time, no legal authority and in disregard of the wishes of its population. Nonetheless, the Declaration introduces the concept into international relations in a most decisive manner.

The text of the Mandate for Palestine adopted by the Council of the League of Nations on July 24, 1922 made the project a practical reality rather than simply a rhetorical position by holding that “the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting [The Balfour Declaration] into effect.” Article II repeats the language of the Declaration that, “The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, as laid down in the preamble, and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.” Like the Declaration, the Mandate therefore set up a virtually impossible conundrum by pledging to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine, without specifying whether or not this would involve a Jewish state, and more importantly without violating the civil and religious rights of the Palestinian majority. Probably the only way to parse this in a manner that makes the language of the Mandate and the Declaration intelligible is to distinguish between civil and religious rights to be afforded to non-Jews (that is to say Palestinians) in Palestine on the one hand, and national political rights which are only mentioned in connection with Jews on the other hand. In other words, there does seem to have been a time at which, guided by British policy and interests, the international community, such as it was, regarded the Jewish national project in Palestine as legitimate and simply refrained from commenting on the Palestinian national project, unless to damn it by silence.

However, given the increasing assertion of Palestinian national identity and ambitions during the mandatory period, this willful blindness could not extend itself into international decision-making about the end of the Mandate, as it had at its beginning. Several proposals from the late 1930s, most notably the 1937 Peel Commission Report, suggested partition of Palestine between Jewish and Arab states. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947 called for the establishment of, “Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.” This partition resolution, along with its own unilateral Declaration of Independence that defines it as “a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel,” is generally regarded as the birth certificate of the Israeli state. Indeed, Israel’s admittance as a member state of the United Nations by UN General Assembly Resolution 273 (III), adopted on May 11, 1949, specifically referenced “its resolutions of 29 November 1947 [181] and 11 December 1948,” and a commitment to the implementation of those provisions.

The irony, of course, is that if the 1947 partition resolution was the primary international birth certificate for Israel, it must also be so for the yet to be established Palestinian state as well. The logic of partition cannot cut in one direction only. Indeed, the “land-for-peace” formula of UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 and its numerous legal progeny is simply a logical extension of the fundamental attitude towards balancing Jewish and Arab rights in Palestine through sharing of the land between two equally sovereign and ethnically-defined entities. Therefore, Israel’s legal status internationally as a Jewish state depends on the eventual creation of a Palestinian state to complete the logic of its own creation. International legality on this question has been formulated such that neither Israel nor Palestine makes sense as a standalone, but represent two mutually dependent functions of the same equation.

II. Israel as a Jewish state

Israel, in many important respects plainly IS a Jewish state. First of all, it is a sovereign member state of the United Nations and therefore defines its own character. In negotiations with the Palestinians, it is this power and prerogative of self-definition that leaves many wondering what is the point of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as, in his words, “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” While this issue is not new in Arab-Israeli negotiations, such formulations are both new and striking, and go far beyond mutual recognition of states and of rights of self-determination. From the Palestinian point of view, recognition of Israel and the realization of a conflict ending, two-state agreement that includes an end of all claims the parties may have on each other accomplishes everything substantive in this regard. Israel is free to define itself, just as Palestine will be. The question of the Jewish character of Israel was never raised and is not reflected in its peace treaties with Egypt or Jordan. It therefore seems odd and gratuitous to ask Palestinians to enter into the debate that rages, and will no doubt continue to rage, within Israel about the nature of the Israeli state and its “Jewish character.” It also raises the question of why Israel would cede to anyone else a role in defining its identity and character. It is extremely unusual, if not unprecedented, for states to demand and for other states to accept certain specific ethnic definitions or other characterizations in their diplomatic arrangements, which are almost always regarded as internal matters not subject to external approval or even comment.

When we speak of Israel as a Jewish state, what, after all, does this really mean? The most obvious and perhaps only consensus meaning is Israel has a majority ethnic group that considers itself, and is formally classified by the state, as Jewish, and that has the means of dominating state institutions and society. True enough there is a large Palestinian minority among Israel citizens, and they occupy a complicated relationship with Israel as a “Jewish state.” They enjoy many of the rights and prerogatives of citizenship, and yet are subject to some anomalous legalized discrimination that, while certainly not unique in the world today, is nonetheless unusual in its scope and severity, especially in the context of a minority large enough to comprise approximately 20% of the whole population. The role of the Palestinian citizens of Israel has been struggled with both by mainstream Jewish Israeli society on the one hand and by the Palestinian minority on the other hand since the founding of the state. However, in spite of a very problematic relationship between this large non-Jewish minority and the state itself, Israel’s status as a Jewish state I think plainly rests primarily on the fact that it has a substantial Jewish majority of more than 75 percent.

There are, of course, other ways in which Israel has expressed itself as a Jewish state. There are the various quasi-governmental entities that enjoy a cooperative relationship with the Israeli state, but that purport to act in the name of world Jewry. There are also numerous legal and administrative Israeli provisions that reflect a special relationship between the state and Jewish religious institutions, heritage and sentiments. It appears that only a minority of Jewish Israelis are interested in a systematic expansion of the role of religious institutions in state life, and Israel is likely to remain largely secular for the foreseeable future. However, as with many other Middle Eastern societies there has been a rise in religious sentiments and an increasingly empowered religious right in Israeli political life.

As I noted already, there is a robust debate within Israeli society over the nature and validity of the “Jewish and democratic character” of Israel, and the challenges that this identity poses for the country to become also “a state of all its citizens,” or at least a state that serves all of its citizens equally as opposed to one that reflects indefensible ethnic or religious privilege. Many similar issues are dealt with by states around the world that have to contend with majority sentiments versus minority rights and contentious relationships between religious and secular institutions. Any future Palestinian state would almost certainly face analogous challenges. Indeed, every state in the Middle East contends with them to some extent or another. Yet since many Jewish Israelis cannot agree on the nature of the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state, and because this question is entirely extraneous to the question of the establishment of peace and normal diplomatic relations between Israel and a Palestinian state, it seems difficult to understand the impulse to bring this issue into the negotiations.

What, precisely, would Palestinians be acknowledging if they formally recognized Israel as a “Jewish state” that would not be accomplished if they merely recognize it as presently constituted and self-defined? Indeed Palestinians have already done so on numerous occasions, most notably PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s September 9, 1993 letter to Prime Minister Rabin in which he unambiguously stated, “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” What can possibly be accomplished by this new and startling formulation about recognition of ?the nation-state of the Jewish people? other than adding yet another wrinkle of eminently avoidable complication?

Palestinians are concerned that if they were to explicitly recognize Israel as, in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s language, “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” they might be perceived as endorsing measures that discriminate against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Palestinian leadership sees these issues as an internal matter to be determined by Jewish and Arab Israelis through the political and civic processes within Israel, not as a matter of negotiations between Israel and the PLO. Moreover, Palestinians and many others view this demand as an effort to preempt the refugee issue, which is a core permanent status negotiating issue. Palestinian negotiators have long accepted that major compromises are required on their part regarding refugees and the right of return. This is probably the most politically complicated aspect of permanent status from the Palestinian point of view. Palestinians and peace require significant reciprocal Israeli steps on the most politically sensitive issues from the Israeli perspective, particularly regarding Jerusalem. When former Prime Minister Olmert first raised the issue in this manner around the time of the Annapolis meeting, many Palestinian and American officials viewed it as an effort to preemptively prejudice the refugee issue to the point that it loses its significance in bargaining and becomes, in effect, a settled matter before talks are resumed, let alone concluded. This is one reason why the demand has never been taken up or echoed by the United States.

Israel certainly has the rights to recognition and self-definition, as do all UN member states. Palestinians must have that right as well. An end of conflict agreement that establishes peace on the basis of an end to all claims upon each other would seem to put all these matters satisfactorily to rest. Some argue that Israelis continue to feel that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular do not recognize the legitimacy of their national project. Palestinians and other Arabs certainly have the same suspicions about many Israelis. The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state in some explicit but undefined manner seems to move closer to a scenario that requires an implausible reconciliation of national narratives rather than the more achievable goal of peace based on mutual recognition by two independent, sovereign states. I have argued many times in the past that one of the greatest advantages of a two-state peace agreement is precisely that it does not require a reconciliation of national narratives, but rather the coexistence of these narratives in bordering states through which each is individually expressed. Such an agreement hardly implies irredentism or a desire to resume conflict at some later stage. On the contrary, it puts a full stop to the conflict by creating an agreement that both sides will have a vested interest in making work.

III. Israel as not a Jewish state

Having asserted that Israel plainly is a Jewish state in one sense, I feel it necessary to assert that in another sense Israel is, at present, clearly NOT a Jewish state. It depends entirely on which version of Israel one is talking about. In other words, is this a 1948 or a 1967 problem? Israel proper, within its internationally recognized boundaries, is indeed a Jewish state as I explained above, although the nature of that Jewishness is contentious and unsettled. However, the de facto Israeli state as it now stands is neither Jewish nor democratic because of the nature of the occupation and the status of the millions of Palestinians who live under it, and who are not citizens of Israel or any other state. It seems clear that by most demographic measures that between the river and the sea already there are comparable numbers, if not more, Palestinians as there are Jewish Israelis, especially if one takes into consideration the hundreds of thousands of Israelis primarily residing outside of Israel and the occupied territories but who are still included in the statistics.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak speaking from this very podium at the Washington Institute just a few days ago told your audience, “A successful peace process ? especially with the Palestinians… is a compelling imperative for the state of Israel.” He called it, “the uppermost responsibility of any Israeli government.” As he put it, “Between the Jordan River to the east to the Mediterranean to the west, there live 11 million people: 7.5 million Israelis and 3.5 million Palestinians. And if there was only one sovereign entity on this area named Israel, it will become inevitably either non-Jewish or non- democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians… can vote, it?s a binational state par excellence. If they cannot vote, it?s not a democratic state. So it?s either non-Jewish if they can vote or non-democratic if they cannot and there is no way to bypass this simple and painful reality.” I would add that since 20 percent of those 7.5 million Israelis are themselves Palestinians, if we wish to think in these broader terms, the demographic reality is even starker than his remarks suggested. You do the math.

I think, in fairness, Mr. Barak was being both courageously forthright and slightly delicate in this formulation. He was describing a present and ongoing reality as if it were a future contingency. The reality is that if we conceive of Israel as comprising the territory under its de facto control, and has been for most of its existence up to the present day, then Israel is already neither Jewish nor democratic, and that is not a future contingency but the truth as it stands. This is not even go into the details of life under occupation, and the extraordinary disparities and dichotomies that exist in the fundamental realities defining the lives of Palestinians on the one hand and Israeli settlers on the other.

My point is that Israel de jure, without the occupied territories, assuming the creation of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future, can certainly be considered both Jewish and democratic, although it is still struggling to afford equality to a large non-Jewish minority. However, Israel de facto, including the occupied territories, assuming no creation of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future, cannot be considered either Jewish or democratic in any meaningful sense. I’d note that the new “Masbirim” website for citizen public diplomacy is only the latest example of an official Israeli government artifact that unambiguously incorporates all of the occupied territories into its portrayal of the Israeli state. The notion that Israel includes the occupied territories is be found in representations in numerous Israeli official government documents, and is also reflected in numerous policies, not least of them the settlement building project.

The reality is that Israelis face a clear choice: they can have a Jewish and democratic state, or they can have the occupation. They cannot have both. As it stands now Israel exists on two separate registers simultaneously. On one register it is Jewish and democratic, on the other register it is neither. The choice of whether Israel will be Jewish and democratic or not into the future is entirely dependent upon the achievement of a negotiated agreement that provides for the creation of a viable, sovereign and independent Palestine, as well as an end to the conflict.

Because of these realities, the Israeli government should do everything possible not only to negotiate seriously and in good faith toward such an agreement, but also facilitate the present Palestinian Authority state and institution building program adopted by the PA government last August. Led by Pres. Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, Palestinians are engaging in a paradigm shift about how to achieve independence, taking up the responsibilities of self-government as they continue to insist on the right of self-determination. And after all, as Fayyad has said, only Palestinians can build their state and institutions — no one is going to do it for them. Therefore, if there is to be a Palestinian state, this is an essential and unavoidable step in achieving it.

This program calls the bluff of Palestinians and Israelis alike: are either or both of them really prepared to develop a Palestinian state in the occupied territories to live alongside Israel in peace and security? For the Palestinians, it means channeling all their energies into constructive efforts designed to create the institutional, infrastructural, economic and, and above all, administrative framework of their future state under the occupation, in order to end the occupation. For the Israelis, it will mean ceding more and more attributes of sovereignty in greater and greater areas of the occupied territories to the PA as it develops these institutions, and it will mean getting out of the way of the Palestinians, both literally and figuratively, in an unprecedented manner. It asks both societies, do you mean what you have been saying for the past 20 years?

I would argue it is strongly in Israel’s interest to not prevent Palestinians from creating the essential framework of the Palestinian state that can allow Israel to keep hold of an essential nature that is both Jewish and democratic and divest itself of elements that categorically negate both of these characteristics. It could be seen as ironic, but it is also eminently logical, that a Jewish Israel requires an Arab Palestine alongside it in order to be itself and not something radically different.