Thursday, June 11, 2009

Israel and America: Neither Surrender nor Confrontation

By Barry Rubin
The United States demands that Israel stop construction on settlements. If this doesn’t happen, it hints at dire retaliation.

If Israel agrees to this step, President Barack Obama promises great things. First, he claims this will bring dramatic progress toward Israel-Palestinian peace.

That’s rubbish. We know that yielding would be followed by Palestinian Authority (PA) demands for more unilateral Israeli concessions. PA leaders openly say their strategy is to let the West force Israel to give them everything they want without any change by them. We know the current PA leadership is both disinterested and incapable of making real peace.

In addition, the U.S. initiative is absurdly one-sided, without hint of reciprocity by the other side. Equally, the administration’s brutal-style rhetoric denies previous U.S. commitments to Israel have been made on this issue. This approach seems almost designed to convince Israelis that further unilateral concessions will continue to be unrewarded and Western commitments continue to be forgotten.

Second, we are promised that if Israel gives in, Arab states will change their policies, becoming more conciliatory toward Israel and more helpful on pressing Iran.

This, too, is rubbish. Arab regimes have their own interests. They need the conflict; they view its solution to be an American problem. They’ve already make it clear that the United States will get nothing from them for pressuring Israel into concessions except demands to press Israel for more concessions.

Third, we’re promised that if Israel stops construction on settlements, the West can act more effectively on Iran. But they’ve already chosen a policy of engagement and concessions to Iran. There’s no will or ability to increase sanctions, not to mention continuing opposition by Russia and China.

So this, equally, is rubbish. Iran will make no deal and stall for time, correctly assessing that Western willpower as low. Of course, Iran wants to be regional hegemon. It sees having nuclear weapons as a plus whose political and economic costs are low.

Most disgusting of all are honeyed claims by American and European officials—be they cynical or foolish—that such concessions are good for Israel, as it will help it make peace and greater security. In truth, they want Israel to make concessions for their own selfish interests. They believe it will make the radical Islamist threat go away at Israel’s expense.

What then is the reality? If Israel ceases construction on settlements it will get nothing. Arab states, the PA, and West won’t change policies. Iran will go merrily on toward nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, there’s still a strong case for Israel making a gesture to the U.S. administration for several reasons:

--To avoid alienating the U.S. government. Failing to resolve this issue means that the administration will blame its inevitable failures and certain lack of progress in the region on Israel for the next three, perhaps next seven, years.

--By saying “no,” Israel would play into the scapegoating game, letting everyone pretend that all would be fine if Israel only altered its behavior. American and European policymakers will claim the only reason they can’t get peace, Arab cooperation, or an end to Iran’s nuclear drive is because of Israel’s behavior.

--The issue is construction, not dismantling settlements or withdrawing from more land. While one might respond that will be the next demand, a partial “yes” now does not inhibit saying “no” on a bigger issue.

--Israel’s first response, offering removal of outposts or roadblocks and asking for adherence to past promises, has failed. Up to a point, stalling is a good tactic. No matter how determined the U.S. government is on this issue at present, months can go by in maneuverings. Crises and distractions will arise; the U.S. administration might learn to understand reality better.

To me the decisive factors are these: A single gesture must be made toward the new U.S. administration as a “gift” to Obama in order to consolidate his personal commitment to Israel. The fact that this step is temporary, reversible and doesn’t endanger Israeli lives makes it preferable to alternative actions.

On issues like east Jerusalem, border modifications, security guarantees regarding any future Palestinian state, no compromise with Hamas, and others, Israelis are willing to stand up and face any consequences of a break with the United States. But this specific issue is simply not worth a confrontation, especially because it is the first request by the Obama administration.

There is also a way to do it on Israel’s terms: a temporary, reversible freeze on construction, not including Jerusalem and in a clear framework of what Israel expects in return, with the results to be judged solely by Israel.

What are these conditions? Two could be continuing Western efforts to isolate Hamas, the end to official PA incitement to kill Israelis and wipe Israel off the map.

Other conditions could be private, like evidence of a stronger Western effort against Iran’s nuclear weapons’ drive.

If these things don’t happen, Israel warns in advance that it would say: “We told you so. This experiment has failed” and return to construction. Such a move would provoke criticism that Israel could far more easily resist at costs lower than at present. It should be stressed that unlike withdrawing from territory or dismantling settlements, a construction freeze would be a reversible step.

Netanyahu knows how far he can go without unraveling his coalition. By conditioning it as suggested here, he could more likely sell a limited concession to his cabinet.

But what he should certainly avoid is alternative concessions to “protect” settlement construction which would be far more dangerous to Israeli lives and interests without solving Israel’s problem with the United States. These could include going too far in loosening restrictions on the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip or dismantling needed roadblocks.

Israel should respond flexibly on the construction issue but only in a way shaped by its own interests and far better appreciation of the situation in the Middle East.

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