Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute campaign rant that there would be no Palestinian State while he was Prime Minister sounded, even to us, like finger nails screeching down a blackboard. It must have come across as startling as Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” was to Palestinians abroad and Arabists in our own country. Not surprisingly, both politicians hurriedly “walked back” their campaign blather within 24 hours.
It is generally axiomatic in American politics that politicians pander to their base when running, and tack to the center once in office. Netanyahu cobbled together a coalition of right-leaning and hard-right minorities within the Israeli electorate in order to win the right to try to form a government. No one knows for sure, at this time, whether he will succeed in forming a new government consisting of an allied cabinet of ministers and the factions they represent in the Knesset. We certainly expect, however, that he will.
The campaign alarm Netanyahu expressed over the large number of Arabs who were voting was reprehensible in a modern democratic society, but we give him credit for candor. It probably was alarming to him. He wasn’t trying to stop Arabs from voting, but he was desperately trying to get the rightists out to vote for him. But think about this. His sense of alarm demonstrated just how vibrant Israeli democracy is. The anti-Netanyahu Arab minority has the right to vote, and vote they did. Where else in the Arab world today, do heads of state really worry about the Arab vote? Where else in the Arab world today do they even vote? Nonetheless, it was sorry rhetoric in such a strong democracy.
The crassness of it aside, it was a rather obvious assessment of reality in that troubled and chaotic neighborhood. The fact is there will be no Palestinian State while Netanyahu is Prime Minister, nor would there be a Palestinian State if Herzog or Livni were Prime Minister. There will not be a two-state solution while Hamas is a partner in the Palestinian government, and not while the Palestinians demand the right of all Palestinians and their descendants to return to the homes they once occupied in what is now Israel, and certainly not while any Palestinian government refuses to agree that a peace settlement will end the dispute.
Actually, Netanyahu’s (immediately retracted) words are not the issue. His words are simply the excuse that President Obama now has to “rethink” the US position on supporting Israel in world forums, especially the UN Security Council. It is a fatuous excuse. Israel is either an ally of the United States or it is not. The campaign hyperbole of an Israeli Prime Minister was just that — campaign hyperbole. Its retraction should be taken at face value, not because the retraction evidences fidelity to a two state solution (it may or may not), but because of the interests and values that bind us as allies.
The Palestinian issue won’t be resolved until the Palestinian body politic and the Israeli body politic really want to resolve the dispute. There can be no question but that most Israelis yearn for peaceful coexistence. Each side, however, constantly gives the other side justification for not resolving the dispute, and as long as there is a strong rejectionist movement on both sides there will be no resolution. Progress toward peace has been, and will continue to be, subject to easy unraveling.
Every American administration seems to believe peace is simply a matter of process. Reagan pursued a plan that would have tied the Palestinians to Jordan, required Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied after the six-day war (following successful peace and security arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians). Bush 41 pursued the Madrid peace process. Clinton pursued the Wye Plantation agreement (remember that one) and then the 2000 Camp David Talks. Bush 43 pursued the Annapolis peace talks and the so-called road map; and Obama pursued peace talks that collapsed last year encumbered by the expansion of some settlements by the Israelis, and the subsequent announcement by the PA (during the talks) that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas had secretly formed a unity government.
Small wonder Netanyahu assured his base in the waning hours of an election campaign that there would be no two-state solution while he was Prime Minister. This is the same Hamas that has regularly fired rockets at Israeli civilian centers ever since they took over the Gaza Strip following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal. This is the same Hamas that is committed by its charter to genocide against Jews in general and against Israel in particular. And horrors of horrors, Netanyahu promises that there will be no Palestinian state while he is Prime Minister.
The UN and the EU may be ready to welcome into the family of nations a Palestinian state joined at the hip with Hamas, but no one should expect Israel to. President Obama’s high pique over Netanyahu’s recanted campaign excesses are, in our judgment, overwrought.
The idea of a Palestinian Authority-Hamas unity government is anathema to Israelis, but cheered by almost all Palestinians. According to a reliable poll by Ramallah-based Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) conducted last year, Three quarters of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza support integrating Fatah and Hamas security services and the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestine Liberation Organization. An even larger majority supports a Hamas-PA partnership even if it results in U.S. economic sanctions or Israeli political pressure.
So what does all of this tell us? It tells us that until the time is conducive, and the parties themselves want to make progress, there will be no lasting progress. Anwar Sadat’s readiness and determination to end the cycle of war with Israel paved the way for peace between Egypt and Israel. The ’94 Oslo accords, which had limited but important lasting value, was pursued by Israelis and Palestinians in Oslo to the surprise of the US and the rest of the world. Every US Administration, it seems, drags both parties to its own version of peace talks. What we’ve learned is that peace efforts orchestrated by Washington to which the parties themselves are not committed, are fraught with danger, rarely accomplish anything positive and create more friction then they alleviate.
President Obama seems determined to hang on to Netanyahu’s remarks even if the Israeli Prime Minister has let them go. Obama now considers Netanyahu’s campaign excesses a new statement of positions that justifies recalculation of America’s support of Israel. “We take him at his word,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of Netanyahu.
Earnest also complained about Netanyahu’s remarks about the heavy Arab turnout. “These kinds of cynical, divisive election day tactics stand in direct conflict to … the values that are critical to the bond between our two countries,” he said.
Someone should ask Mr. Earnest if President Obama also thinks the “Death to America” remarks this week by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, might also be in direct conflict to the values that are critical to the bond he is seeking with Iran.