Paul Pillar

Exposing Netanyahu

Probably the most significant take-away from the past few days of U.S.-Israeli dialog is to shed light on the true intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding peace with the Palestinians. Although Netanyahu finally allowed the phrase “Palestinian state” to pass his lips for the first time almost two years ago, this past week in Washington provided further confirmation of what had been apparent all along: that whatever conception Netanyahu may have of such a “state,” it is not a formula having any chance of becoming the basis for—to use Netanyahu's own words from his joint appearance with President Obama on Friday—“a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure,” or probably even what most of the rest of the world would consider a state. Netanyahu is smart enough to realize this, which is to say he is content to let the status quo endure indefinitely. Israel will maintain that status quo through brute force—military force within the territories, and political force in Washington.

The drop-the-veil moment during this past week was the importunate lobbying by Netanyahu's government before President Obama delivered his Middle East speech on Thursday at the State Department (and doesn't that say something right there—where else would one see a foreign government get in the last lobbying licks on a president's speech, even at the expense of delaying the speech?) to omit any mention of the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiating land swaps and an eventual territorial settlement. The president mentioned that anyway, and in the joint appearance on Friday Netanyahu said nothing about land swaps, instead denouncing the 1967 borders as not being a suitable basis for anything. As Mr. Obama correctly noted in his address to AIPAC on Sunday, there was nothing new in his mention of 1967-borders-with-swaps. It has long been recognized as the only formula that has any hope of being the basis for a successful negotiation. It has been the basis for several official proposals, including one by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. It also has been at the center of several unofficial proposals, including ones from people whose concern for Israel cannot be doubted (such as a plan offered by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).

So for Netanyahu, not only is the land allotted to the Jewish state in the UN partition plan of the 1940s not enough, and not only is the larger territory that became the State of Israel with what we call the 1967 borders not enough. Even with land swaps that would extend Israel farther into the West Bank and include the large majority of the settlements Israel has constructed on land seized in the 1967 war, that would still not be enough for him. How much would be enough? One can speculate on what crumbs of land would be left to the Palestinians, but speculation is not required to have an idea based on Netanyahu's own statements of what such a “state” would entail: Israeli control of the airspace, no military of its own, and, as the prime minister mentioned on Friday, a “long-term” Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. It sounds like a bantustan that would make Bophuthatswana look like a paragon of sovereignty. But trying to envision the details of such an entity is pointless because it is a non-starter very likely intended to be rejected.

Charters, manifestos, and declarations often are superseded by political reality and do not reflect true intentions or policies. But in this instance, Netanyahu's actions tend to confirm the openly stated position of the other leaders of his own Likud Party. As Henry Siegman has pointed out in these spaces, that position is to oppose creation of a Palestinian state in any part of the West Bank.

Dishonesty in his professed desire for a peace settlement and a Palestinian state was only one part of the deception Netanyahu has displayed this past week. Another part concerned his reasons for coveting all that land. This part of the duplicity derives from the nature of U.S. interests involving Israel. The United States has an interest in assuring the security of Israel. In his AIPAC speech, President Obama properly referred to this aspect of U.S.-Israeli relations as “ironclad.” But the United States has no positive interest in either party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict acquiring title to land not because it is needed for security but instead for historical or religious reasons, or simply to acquire living space. The only U.S. interest is the negative one of being associated in the minds of much of the rest of the world with the Israeli occupation. So Netanyahu couched his denunciation of the 1967 boundary in security terms, saying (again ignoring what President Obama said about land swaps) that the boundary was “indefensible.”

Let's see—even if we ignore, as Netanyahu has, what would be needed for the Palestinians' security—how has that boundary figured into Israeli security in the past? In the one war that was fought across the boundary—the one in 1967—the Israeli Defense Forces conquered the entire West Bank in less than a week (while they also were taking the Golan Heights away from Syria and the Sinai away from Egypt). Since that war, the differential between Israel's military capability and that of its Arab neighbors has become if anything even greater (even just at the conventional level, without considering Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons beginning in the 1970s). Who would threaten Israel across that 1967 border? A demilitarized Palestinian “state”? Some rusty post-Cold War army from some other Arab country that somehow made it into the West Bank? For many years the biggest threat to Israelis' security has come not across a border beyond which Israel lacked control but instead from angry Palestinians in land that Israel does control. The idea of the 1967 border as indefensible is—given military realities in the Middle East—itself indefensible. And the notion that an Israeli-Palestinian boundary based on land swaps on either side of that border, and as part of a larger peace agreement, would threaten Israeli security is ludicrous.

Netanyahu did go beyond the security argument when he said in the joint appearance with Obama (again apparently deaf to what the president said about land swaps) that the 1967 boundaries “don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.” In other words, Israel is claiming squatter's rights through its construction of settlements in the occupied territories. And the same government (along with its apologists) charges with a straight face that for the Palestinians to insist that further construction—leading to further Israeli claims on the land—cease is somehow a foolish or unreasonable precondition to negotiations.

Also on display these past few days has been the continued robustness in the United States of the lobby-that-supposedly-doesn't-exist and is the political basis for Netanyahu to be able to bring his swagger and his propensity for lecturing right into the Oval Office.  Anyone who did not know the identity of the two leaders would have had a hard time determining which one represented the client state and which one leads the superpower that has lavished enormous diplomatic and material support on the client for years.

Netanyahu's ability to swagger is further strengthened by the political interests of the Republicans who invited him to address Congress and who, as the Republican leader in the Senate has made explicit, consider the defeat of Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election to be their number one priority as they go to work in the Capitol each day. The Republicans smell political advantage in the friction between Netanyahu and Obama. So they take the side of a foreign leader against that of the president of the United States—regardless of where U.S. interests lie.

Even though the Middle East peace process currently lacks on the Israeli side a leader committed to negotiating a settlement, President Obama is right to keep the issue alive. It is simply too important, to the region and to U.S. interests. Doing so is a hedge against the possibility that Netanyahu, even though he has given no indication of this, may actually come to realize that a settlement is in the interests of Israel—a democratic, Jewish, and peaceful Israel—and vitally in its interests over the long term. Keeping the issue alive also keeps the negotiating seat warm for some other Israeli leader who may come to power and be quicker to accept those truths than Netanyahu is. And it helps to reduce at least slightly the damage to U.S. interests from being associated with an indefinite Israeli occupation. In the meantime, the applause that Netanyahu will receive in the Capitol should not be allowed to hide how fraudulent have been his professed ambitions and motivations regarding the occupied West Bank.