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.