Shadowboxing Israel into a Corner

Netanyahu refuses to go along with the charade. Israel will pay for his stubbornness.

Of course, it's all shadowboxing—Obama's latest Middle East policy speech, Netanyahu's hardline rejoinder before both houses of Congress. The peace process is not going anywhere, and it can't. The Palestinians don't intend to negotiate in good faith, and they don't intend to reach a two-state solution. They want all of Palestine, nothing less. Hamas says it simply: Abbas deploys a forked tongue. Their intention is the same.

But Netanyahu isn't playing the game, and this is costing Israel dearly in the international arena. He should have cast aside his internal political calculus and safety net and shadowboxed with the rest of them. He is in the politically enviable position of having a wide and deep coalition; he can afford defections, and the centrist Kadima Party, led by Tzipi Livni, is always there in the wings to take up the slack if Netanyahu appears too conciliatory for the likes of Avigdor Liberman or Eli Yishai.

The Bill Clinton parameters of December 2000 are the only diplomatic game in town, and in effect they were what Obama was reiterating. Clinton said that a demilitarized (Obama—"nonmilitarized") Palestinian state should be established on 94–96 percent of the West Bank, 100 percent of the Gaza Strip and the Arab half of Jerusalem; Obama said a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with exchanges of territory. Same thing. Israel will retain 4­­–6 percent of the West Bank (which contain the big settlement blocs) and give the Palestinians an equivalent chunk of land from Israeli territory in exchange.

Clinton was more explicit about resolving the refugee problem: Refugees to the future Palestinian state or resettle outside the Middle East. Obama preferred to be less explicit on this point—losing brownie points among Israelis—and simply said that Israel should remain a Jewish-majority state, the state of the Jewish people. The meaning was the same—no substantial influx of Arab refugees into Israel.

Returning to the premiership two years ago, Netanyahu appeared to free himself from the ideological shackles of Greater Israel and enunciated the coda—a two-state solution. His two-state vision and Obama's (and Clinton's) diverge only on two major points: He would like to retain East Jerusalem (a "united" Jerusalem) for Israel and an Israeli security presence along the Jordan River, so that the Palestinians are not tempted to invite Iraqi or Iranian troops into their West Bank state, directly threatening the heart of Israel.

The second point is bridgeable—Obama spoke of a gradual Israeli withdrawal, perhaps twenty or thirty years hence, from the Jordan River line. If the Palestinians can remain peaceful for that duration, proving their ability to cleave to peace, they will have earned—and generated—Israeli trust. So, by then, few Israelis will object to relinquish the river's edge.

And Jerusalem is something Netanyahu will have to overcome, within his own soul and in the Israeli political arena. His predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert did so. Ariel Sharon was probably also moving in that direction. Netanyahu will have to, if he is to offer the world a convincing and credible vision of peace. (The Arab world cannot live with a formula that does not give the Palestinians their—demographic—half of Jerusalem.)

But, again, this is all shadowboxing. The Palestinians will never agree to give up the "right of return," the mantra and ethos of their national movement, in a sense, their identity. And they will never agree to a settlement that includes a Jewish state in the bulk of Palestine.

So Netanyahu will never concretely be called upon to give up East Jerusalem. But to retain for Israel a modicum of international sympathy and support, he should have played, and must take the bull by the horns and play, the game, go through with the charade and shadowbox with the best of them. That's a large part of what it means, in Israel's unfortunate, unappetizing geopolitical context, to be a leader.

Image by Stpeter09