Imbalanced on Israel

The United States spends 99 percent of its time figuring out how to butter up Israel, and only 1 percent on the legitimate concerns of Palestinians.

The efforts to resume peace talks on ending the Israeli-Arab conflict are in full swing. The United States is aggressively courting the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition, trying to embarrass them with sufficient riches that would convince even the most recalcitrant Israeli politician to reconsider Israel’s settlement policy (for ninety days at least). U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reportedly spent more than eight hours with Netanyahu last week trying to work out a package of incentives that would allow him to continue building settlements at below top speed for three more months. These incentives included $3 billion worth of American fighter jets, a promise to continue blocking all attempts in international forums for recognition of a Palestinian state and, most importantly, a game changing promise to never raise the issue of settlement construction again after three months—although some U.S. officials have pushed back on this characterization of their offer.

The U.S.-Israeli bilateral, direct talks are an important component of recommendations made by myself and many other analysts. Before the United States and the international community endorse their own solution, they must engage in direct, back-to-back negotiations with Israel, the Palestinians, the Syrians and the most relevant Arab governments in order to find out just how far each could go.

There is a problem, however. The United States has only adopted the negotiating-with-Israel part of this comprehensive strategy so far. Call it the 99–1 percent strategy: Washington will spend 99 percent of its time and effort trying to provide Israel with as many incentives as White House creativity can come up with, while spending about 1 percent of the same effort trying to determine the legitimate concerns of the parties that are supposed to make peace with Israel.

This is the “no-daylight” policy to which Vice President Biden has referred. By agreeing in advance with Israel on what kind of peace the Netanyahu government wants—and on the conditions for the occupation in the meantime—America can then turn its attention to the Arabs and force a framework agreement that would effectively buy a decade or more of negotiations, while allowing the Palestinians to claim a “state” and Israel to continue its control over the West Bank.

From a domestic, short-term perspective, there is logic to this from the U.S. position. The Arab and Palestinian governments seem to think they have nowhere else to go but the United States. The Israelis, on the other hand, have aggressively courted the far right of the Republican Party (although American Jews continue to overwhelmingly vote for liberal candidates). For the White House there is logic to keeping Republican extremists and prosettler Democrats off your back by so aligning White House policy with an ever-increasing stream of incentives for Israel that there is no room for complaint.

There are at least two risks in pursuing such a policy, however, and both are already turning up.

The first risk is that this Israeli government, ironically, is in a better position to negotiate with the United States under the “more incentives if you do” and “less incentives if you don’t” policy than is a United States government which effectively provides Israel every material, economic and military form of support. Under these conditions, the natural negotiating position of any Israeli political leader—even the head of Kadima—would be to maximize the incentives received from Washington and to minimize any willingness to actually end control over Palestinian and Syrian territory. After all, Israel wins either way because the incentives provided by the United States outweigh any potential concerns Israeli leaders may have over the currently painless status quo. A bird in the hand is also worth two in the bush in the Middle East.

The second risk is that the Palestinians and the Arabs may still consider other options if, at the end of the day, they are simply unwilling (or unable) to accept a still-occupied state with provisional borders under the guise of a framework agreement. Their reliance on the United States is great; however, there are “third party” candidates out there and they are beginning to look pretty good. It is for this reason you now hear Arab leaders openly discussing alternative ways to get to a Palestinian state—even if they have no clear better strategy yet.

The current White House strategy needs to be amended if this coming year isn’t going to lead to increased challenges to U.S. national-security interests in the region—both from Israel and from Arabs as well as from fundamentalists in both camps. The White House should focus on resetting its own priorities first, beginning with the imbalance in time it devotes to each side of the negotiations. That would be a better start than spending all its political capital tweaking the percentage of Palestinian land on which Israel can build community centers.