If Barack Obama hoped to glide along the Annapolis path set up by George Bush in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel sent him a rude wake-up call yesterday. New Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Obama’s special envoy George Mitchell that Israel will insist on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which Palestinians have outright rejected in the past:
In a direct challenge to President Barack Obama’s commitment to rejuvenate moribund Mideast peace talks, Israel on Thursday dismissed American-led efforts to establish a Palestinian state and laid out new conditions for renewed negotiations.
Leaders of Israel’s hawkish new government told former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy, that they aren’t going to rush into peace talks with their Palestinian neighbors.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he’d require Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state in any future negotiations — a demand that Palestinians have up to now rejected — Israeli government officials said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Obama’s envoy that past Israeli concessions led to war, not peace.
On that point, it’s hard to argue. Ariel Sharon dismantled settlements in Gaza and pulled the occupying army out in 2004 after accepting the Bush-Rice “road map for peace” the previous year. Instead of stabilizing Gaza and allowing for responsible self-rule, Gaza became more radical than before. In 2007, Hamas staged a coup d’etat and took full control over the territory and expanded its missile and rocket attacks on Israel. The IDF has had to conduct major military operations twice in Gaza since then, and have also had to conduct many smaller operations to pinpoint launch sites.
The West wants Israel to start dismantling settlements in the West Bank and withdraw there as well, but Netanyahu and his new government can be forgiven for not wanting to make the same mistake twice. Eventually, that will have to happen if a two-state solution is to work, but that’s not the real first step. The real first step is to have a partner actually interested in peace and peaceful co-existence with a secure Israel. Thus far, all of the Annapolises, Wye Rivers, and Oslos have failed to produce such a partner, mostly because Palestinians by and large cling to the annihilationist policy with Israel, or as they put it, the “Zionist entity.”
Neither, though, will Netanyahu’s idea of limited autonomy work in the long term. He envisions a “home rule” for Palestinians in the territories, without national sovereignty. I don’t see how that benefits Israel at all; it seems like the worst of both worlds. Not only would Israel be responsible for maintaining the welfare of the Palestinians, the arrangement practically guarantees an eternity of conflict with those who are not radical but have a rational ideal of self-government. Oslo gave Palestinians “home rule” more than 15 years ago, and that has worked as well as the Gaza withdrawal in solving the underlying problem.
Netanyahu’s latest pushback seems designed more to test Obama than as a serious policy proposal. I doubt Netanyahu wants to maintain the status quo, but he doesn’t want to get pushed into a series of unilateral concessions, either. He’s starting off aggressively, perhaps encouraged by Russia’s public scorn directed at Obama’s foreign-policy efforts. We’ll see how Obama reacts to allies using that strategy, and if he handles it any better than he did in Europe earlier this month.