The recent Iran nuclear agreement is tangible evidence that determined diplomacy, backed by international cooperation, resolute leadership, and concrete, sustained engagement, has the potential to overcome and resolve even the toughest challenges in the international arena. Now, with the Iran deal having survived the Congressional review period, the Obama Administration – together with its allies in the international community – must return their focus and efforts to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which represents a far more existential threat to Israel that Iran ever did – putting at risk its future as a democracy and a Jewish state.
This does not mean returning to the failed tactics of recent years. It is time for President Obama and the international community to face the facts, starting with the fact that for his entire career – including three previous terms in office as Prime Minister – Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently acted to subvert Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and undermine the two-state solution. He has done so through the promotion of settlements, the “legalizing” of illegal settlement outposts, and various other policies that have expanded and deepened the occupation across the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Many hoped that Netanyahu’s verbal embrace of the two-state solution in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech marked a turning point, and that his rhetorical nods to the Arab Peace Initiative signaled an openness to a broader agreement with the Arab world. Netanyahu’s actions and policies, however, have consistently belied his words, demonstrating unequivocally that he remains committed not to achieving peace, but to implementing an expansionist, “Greater Israel” agenda. During the last election campaign Netanyahu took things a step further, proudly touting his pro-settlement credentials and unabashedly vowing that no Palestinian state would be established while he is in office.
In the wake of such statements, and given his long record in office, there can be no further debate: it would be delusional to expect that Benjamin Netanyahu, or the right-wing government that he leads, would be a partner for peace – not for the Palestinians, not for the Arab Peace Initiative, and not for the United States and broader international community. The only thing that would challenge this conclusion would be decisive, pro-peace action from Netanyahu and his government – like a complete freeze on settlement construction and action to immediately remove all illegal settlement outposts – that would represent a 180-degree shift from everything that Netanyahu has done until now.
In this context, the United States and its allies in the international community must set aside, for now, the long-pursued objective of fostering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It remains true that only a negotiated agreement can end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and result in a state of Israel and a state of Palestine living side-by-side in peace and with security. However, there is no reason to believe that the current Israeli government, or any government under Netanyahu’s leadership, offers any prospect for such an agreement, or for any broader agreement based on the Arab Peace Initiative. This is the case regardless of the readiness of the Palestinians to make tough compromises or the willingness of the international community to provide support and guarantees.
New negotiations now – or pressure on the Palestinians to go back to talks with a Netanyahu government – would be futile and counterproductive, further discrediting diplomacy and U.S. leadership. They would provide cover for further Israeli government policies and actions that are anathema to peace. They would further undermine the diminishing Palestinian support for the two-state outcome and feed international boycott-divestment-sanctions efforts.
The focus on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two-state solution must for now be replaced by a determination – by the United States and key allies in the international community – to articulate and adopt clear parameters for a future two-state agreement, laying the foundations for consequences that will result from any party taking actions that contradict these parameters. Such an effort – which should include action in the United Nations Security Council – would be an important first step toward reasserting the credibility and restoring the viability of the two-state outcome, the only outcome that can preserve Israel’s security and character as a Jewish state and a democracy, and deliver freedom, dignity and sovereignty to the Palestinians.
To achieve this, the Obama Administration must begin by clarifying and setting down, in far greater resolution and with far greater resolve than has been done by any administration until now, America’s policy vis-à-vis the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a policy must be grounded in longstanding U.S. positions – supported by both Republican and Democratic presidents – as articulated in greatest detail thus far in the Clinton Parameters, and must not walk back those parameters. Such a policy should also be supportive of an outcome along the lines of the Geneva Initiative – the most fully fleshed-out, negotiated Israel-Palestinian peace effort in history – as well as with a broader Israeli-Arab peace agreement based on the Arab Peace Initiative. Finally, while communication with the parties should continue, there must be no effort, public or private, to pre-negotiate this fundamental policy either with Israel or with the Palestinians.
Henceforth, actions of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, whether in its bilateral relations with Israel or the Palestinians, in the United Nations Security Council, or in any other context, should flow from this newly clarified, energized policy – including concrete consequences for actions, whether taken by the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, or the PLO, which violate U.S. policy and undermine these goals and interests.
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