The next battle

Whatever the Obama administration proposed to Benjamin Netanyahu as incentives in return for only 90 days settlement-freeze (they talk about an extra $3 billion worth of advanced F-35 fighter aircraft, apart from the annual $3 billion military subsidy Israel receives from Washington), you know what might happen next: the Israelis would take the subsidy and loiter 90 days, maybe less, about a peace deal that they would do their best to turn into a farce.

It is a pity, because after eight years of quasi limbo for the Palestinians, we have today a US president with a militant past, quite sensitive to the sufferance of the Palestinian people, and willing to work for peace; but on the other side, I am afraid there is no partner for peace in the Israeli government.

A farce? Would they deceive their American allies? Well, it just happened. And several times.

B Netanyahu is the man who on the very day the Knesset endorsed Oslo II, stood up in Zion square in Jerusalem, among thousands of anti-peace demonstrators holding the effigy of Rabin in SS uniform, and rashly called Oslo II a surrender agreement, accusing Rabin of “causing national humiliation by accepting the dictates of the terrorist Arafat.” A month later, Rabin was assassinated.

I know the old objection: he is in power. It is not like he was in opposition. He has to adopt a different attitude.

Ideally, yes, he has to. But in practice, the Likud party has never given up ideology for pragmatic policy, and the behaviour of its leaders is evidence of the stiffness and the rigidity of their thought.

In 1996, when the Likud returned to power, right in the middle of the Oslo peace process, what did Netanyahu do? We know that from the beginning, the Likud was opposed to the Labour government’s “land for peace” deal with the Palestinians. “Netanyahu himself repeatedly denounced the accord as a “violation of the right of the Jewish people to the land” and as a “mortal danger to their security,” recalls the British-Israeli historian Avi Shlaim. So, if we ask history, it will tell us that “the foreign policy guidelines of his government expressed firm opposition to a Palestinian state, to the Palestinian right of return and to the dismantling of Jewish settlements.”

What does that mean in detail? It means that during two and half years in power, Netanyahu, as Shlaim put it, relentlessly attempted “to arrest, freeze and subvert the Oslo Accords. He kept preaching reciprocity while acting unilaterally in demolishing Arab houses, imposing curfews, confiscating Arab land, building new Jewish settlements and opening an archaeological tunnel near the Muslim holy places in the old city of Jerusalem.” And when the Clinton administration put him under pressure to sign the Wye River Memorandum in October 1998, providing for an Israeli withdrawal from a further 13 per cent of the West Bank in three stages, he could not deliver because his ultra-nationalist and religious partners let him down.

Shlaim explains the collapse of Netanyahu government by the irreducible contradiction between its declared policy (peace with the Palestinians) and its ideological makeup completely opposed to exchanging land for peace. This is all the same a basic creed for the Likud party and its allies. If we go back up to the Madrid Summit in 1991, we will find Yitzhak Shamir insisting that the root cause of the conflict “was not territory but the Arab refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the state of Israel.”

Therefore, the idea of swapping land for peace makes no sense in his eyes, for he could not ignore that since 1988, the Palestinian National Council meeting in Algiers, had accepted the principle of partition and a two-state solution based on all relevant UN resolutions going back to November 1947.

Wasn’t that a de facto recognition of the legitimacy of the state of Israel? Yet, instead of welcoming this historical event as a watershed in the Palestinian attitude toward Israel, Shamir government ignored it. Washington failed to seize the opportunity, and at last, by despair or by miscalculation, Arafat sided blindly with Saddam, thus recognising the “right” of taking a land by force, –” which was completely opposed to the spirit of the Palestinian resistance since the beginning.

Does all this intransigence make sense in the eyes of the Israelis? Yes, it does, if we are talking of the right-wing. “Likud’s basic thesis,” says Shlaim, “is that Jordan is Palestine: that there is already a Palestinian state on the East bank of the Jordan…” But is this still what they think? Didn’t Netanyahu accept a Palestinian state last year? That’s what Tony Karon recalls (Time magazine, Nov.18), but he hastens to note that “he never indicated that he accepts the 1967 borders as its basis.”

So, what are we talking about? Is there a deal in the making? We know that the settlement-freeze would normally help negotiators fix the borders. But if Netanyahu is not willing to recognise a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 (before the war, that is) with Arab Jerusalem East included in the package, who would accord the process any signification?

Let us quote Shlaim one more time: Since 1967, says the historian, the Israeli society was divided about “the essential goal of the Zionist movement.” One half wanted to bargain the occupied territories for peace with the Arabs “in line with UN resolution 242 of 22 November 1967.” The other half “wanted to absorb the occupied territories into Greater Israel.” For the latter, there was no question of giving up the West Bank, considered as an integrate part of “the historic homeland” of the Jewish people and referred to in the Bible as “Judea and Samaria.” In this debate, the “territorial maximalists” prevailed and started building Jewish settlements in those disputed territories.

As it happens, Netanyahu and his Likud and their allies inside Israel and outside it, are those territorial maximalists who are still leading the region and their own people to more tragedies. Now, if the question is: will Obama continue his efforts or give up? It is clear that he will; but the result is not granted, because against the pressure that the White House might exert on him, Netanyahu will turn to get support from his friends in Congress now holding the majority in the House. And that might be the field of the next battle for peace.