Tough Love: Obama's New Hardline Israel Policy

The U.S. administration turns the heat up...

Strong indications that the Obama administration may seek UN Security Council (UNSC) backing for a U.S. resolution outlining the terms of a final Middle East peace settlement has rightfully been described as an “earthquake” and potential game-changer. The resolution, reportedly drafted last year by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Middle East negotiating team, would break with a nearly half century old U.S. policy that the terms of a final peace agreement must come out of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and not be imposed from the outside. And for nearly half a century U.S. attempts to prod each side to reach such a negotiated settlement have failed.

An “Obama framework” for a Middle East peace settlement—building no doubt on the 2000 “Clinton parameters” and the 1960s era UN Resolution 242—would prove useful for a number of reasons. It would concede the wisdom of Albert Einstein’s adage that to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome is the definition of madness. Such a resolution would also show that there was a strategy and purpose behind the Obama administration’s very public pique towards Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Most importantly, such a resolution would mean dropping the pretense, once and for all, that Netanyahu actually supports the U.S.-led “peace process,” a pretense which the Israeli leader has feigned for many years as a way to strangle a viable two-state solution in its cradle.

“This mask that Netanyahu wore pretending to support a ‘peace process’ while continuing to create new ‘facts on the ground’ with settlements was very useful, and it served his purposes well for a very long time,” said Daniel Levy, an Israeli political scientist and former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and currently a director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. But the demands of a close election and pressure from an administration focused on settlements forced Netanyahu to dispense with the pretense. “Now that he is unmasked I think it will be much harder, if not impossible, for Netanyahu to keep governing by playing games with the international community while simultaneously winking at the settlers. That’s a good thing: I call this ‘new’ Netanyahu a gateway drug to an honest conversation about Israel.”

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The manner of Netanyahu’s unmasking is worth recalling, because it explains why there is probably no going back to the old diplomatic pretense for the Obama administration. Even by the standards of Israel’s rough-and-tumble coalition politics, the recent campaign run by Netanyahu was unprecedented in its brazenness. Just weeks before the election, Netanyahu trampled diplomatic protocol by going behind the White House’s back to deliver an address to Congress designed to torpedo U.S.-led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu insisted he deeply regretted that some observers had perceived his calculated dissing of the White House as “political.”

“That was never my intention,” Netanyahu assured his audience, and then returned to Israel and included video of his Congressional appearance in television commercials aired in the waning days of his campaign. When his American adventure failed to move polls sufficiently, Netanyahu appeared on the Sunday before the election at a right-wing rally of settlers and their supporters committed to colonizing the West Bank, on which any Palestinian state must be built. After that failed to sufficiently tip the balance in polling, Netanyahu the next day dispensed with the pretense altogether, stating explicitly what his entire career had signaled implicitly: if he was returned to office Netanyahu would never allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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Remarkably, Netanyahu continued to dispense with the gauzy rhetoric that had long veiled his true worldview. Even as Israelis were heading to the voting booth, he alerted supporters on his Facebook page that the “Arabs are flocking in droves to the polling stations,” playing the race card in a desperate attempt to remain in office.

To the existential question of whether Israel would reach a two-state deal and remain a Jewish democracy, or fail to do so and inevitably jettison either its Jewishness or its democracy, Netanyahu had at last given a straight answer: Israel would remain an occupier in perpetuity, the rapidly growing population of Palestinians under Israeli dominion relegated to second-class citizenship, and Israel’s democratic culture and international standing sacrificed to the voracious appetite for land of the Israeli settler movement.