Paul Pillar

The Bad Bargain with Netanyahu

There's not much doubt how the U.S. and Israeli governments see their relative bargaining strength—not the total potential strength that each side could bring to bear if there were sufficient will, but instead the way the bargaining relationship works in practice—if the latest deal the Obama administration has cut with Benjamin Netanyahu is any indication. Let's review the balance sheet. Netanyahu agreed to propose to his cabinet—and cabinet approval may still be in doubt, with rumblings about further Israeli “conditions”—to suspend for three months new construction of settlements in the West Bank. That's a three-month pause in a process that has continued for over four decades and has put over half a million Israelis on that portion of the occupied territories. The pause doesn't even apply to construction in Israel's expansively defined and unilaterally annexed version of East Jerusalem, which is where more than a third of the settlers have settled and where much of the more recent construction has taken place. In return, the United States has bestowed still more military largesse on Israel, in the form of $3 billion worth of advanced fighter aircraft, has committed to oppose any efforts in international organizations to “impose” a political solution on Israel (which sounds like a promise to veto any Palestinian move to seek recognition of statehood), and has further promised that after the three months it would not press Israel for any more settlement freezes. That last concession may be the most important to Netanyahu's government. Wait just 90 days, and the Israelis not only can resume constructing all the settlements they want; they also won't even have to put up with any more annoying nagging from Washington about the issue.

After getting fleeced like this, it is astounding that President Obama would describe Netanyahu's part in the bargaining as “promising.” And it is astounding based just on the terms of the deal, even without factoring in the legal and moral facets of Israel's decades-long appropriation of militarily conquered and occupied territory. In theory an additional three months of bought time could be used to strike an Israeli-Palestinian deal on borders, thereby rendering irrelevant any further construction by Israel on its side of an agreed boundary and lending momentum to negotiations on other final settlement issues. In practice the chance of such a deal being struck is tiny. Why should we expect any more results in the next three months—an eyelash-batting relative to the length of the already-long phenomenon we call the peace process—especially when, as Marc Lynch points out, the Obama administration does not appear to be offering anything newer than a promise to try harder than those who came before.

Why did the administration make such an unpromising bargain with Netanyahu? Before trying to answer that question, we should factor in other prominent aspects of President Obama's current situation. He is coming off his shellacking in domestic politics and a foreign trip that garnered at best mixed reviews and modest results. He faces decisions with no attractive options regarding an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. For these and other reasons he is probably as weak and vulnerable as at any time so far in his presidency. This gives rise to two possible answers to the question about the deal with the Israelis—one far more plausible than the other, although I am not yet prepared to dismiss completely either one.

One possibility is that for the very reason Obama is so in need right now of a boost in the form of a foreign-policy success, he is ready to roll the dice and to devote the extremely strong effort and heavy U.S. involvement that would be needed to strike a deal on borders in the next three months. This would probably have to include, as Bruce Riedel proposes, the United States unrolling its own map and drawing its own boundary, subject to some more haggling by the parties over details. This would be the encouraging answer, but it is the far less plausible one. It would require a shift in political habits and political priorities that I have a hard time envisioning.

The more discouraging and more plausible explanation is that this deal is a way for the president and his administration to back off from even more moderate commitment to the peace process in a way that would not require admitting—to the parties, to foreign and domestic publics, and to themselves—that this is what they are doing. The three months go by, settlements are taken off the table as an overt issue in U.S.-Israeli relations, and the peace process slides back into familiar stalemate. George Mitchell may add some more miles to his frequent flier account, but nothing much happens substantively. The administration can say it tried, in a way that took one last crack at the settlements problem but ends up in a situation in which Israel and its defenders cannot do the president much additional immediate political damage. And the administration goes on to worry about the deficit, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the puzzle of trying to govern with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.