Editor’s Notes: A cold dose of realism

By David Horovitz May 1, 2009

When Netanyahu meets Obama, each will be looking for the other’s pragmatism

This time last year, in the company of three other Israeli journalists, I sat in the Oval Office and heard arguably the most powerful man in the world discuss the near future of our region in terms that can most politely be described as unrealistic.

It was a sad and sobering experience.

As late as May 2008, and quite possibly for several months beyond that, president George W. Bush was either genuinely convinced, or did a very good job of looking and sounding convinced, that a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians would be attained before he left office.

He told us in our meeting, which came just before he made a visit to the region, that he believed prime minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and their negotiators ‘can come up with the definition of a [Palestinian] state’ before his presidency was over.

Of course, he stressed, no such Palestinian state would actually be established ‘until certain obligations are met. But it’s the definition itself which becomes a powerful engine for the marginalization of people who murder innocents to achieve their objectives… The vision of a state is such a powerful notion, such an important notion for Israel’s very existence, that I do believe that we have a chance to get something defined.’

Had he so chosen, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the hapless Olmert’s successor, would this week be holding his first White House meeting with President Barack Obama, the misguided Bush’s successor. But Netanyahu, sensibly, chose to defer that meeting by a couple of weeks, and stay away from the coming days’ AIPAC annual policy conference in Washington, in order to make sure his foreign policy review is finalized before discussing the way ahead with Obama.

The articulate Netanyahu needs little advice in presenting his case to an American leader with whom he is understood to have struck up a rapport in the past. But a key point he will presumably want to make is that Bush was unfortunately, embarrassingly misdirected by Olmert as regards the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, and that in this matter our two allied governments would be best served by a cold dose of realism. If politics is the art of the possible, then Olmert, underestimating the gulf between his positions and those of Abbas, steered Bush down an impossible path with Annapolis.

Bush invested his energies, invested his presidency, in the Annapolis process in large part because Olmert, in whom he placed rather more credence than did many Israelis, argued it stood a reasonable chance of producing a theoretical ‘shelf’ agreement. But Olmert evidently paid too much heed to the relatively moderate rhetoric Abbas would employ in their face-to-face meetings, and not enough to the harder, uncompromising stances Abbas’s negotiators, led by Ahmed Qurei, were expressing in the substantive sessions with then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Ultimately, Abbas was not prepared to accept even the 100 percent West Bank withdrawal, with one-for-one land swaps to enable the maintenance of certain settlement blocs, that Olmert was ready to countenance – or not, at any rate, until the Palestinian refugee issue was resolved to his satisfaction, and until Israel extended that 100% readiness for withdrawal to Jerusalem as well.

‘All I know is that there is the State of Israel, in the borders of 1967, not one centimeter more, not one centimeter less,’ Abbas restated only this week. ‘Anything else, I don’t accept.’

OBAMA AND Netanyahu doubtless both think of themselves as pragmatic leaders, easing gradually toward the center as a consequence of their respective offices, Obama from the left and Netanyahu from the right.

As he declared in his Independence Day greeting to Israel this week, Obama is hoping his presidency will see ‘the realization of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.’

Netanyahu, and the country he leads, would like nothing less.

But given that the US believes progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would help boost Arab support for heavier pressure on Iran, and that Israel believes stopping Iran is the critical condition for real progress on the Palestinian front, the question is whether the two men can reach a consensus over how to achieve that comprehensive ideal.

The prime minister’s challenge will be to persuade the president to disregard those advisers who are assuring him that a little more flexibility and generosity from Israel will melt away the Palestinian intransigence that doomed Annapolis, and Camp David before it.

His aim, in their first White House meeting and beyond, will be to co-opt Obama to the idea of building peace ‘from the bottom up’ – bolstering the Palestinian economy and the Palestinians’ capacity to take responsibility for their own security, and slowly creating the conditions for a viable partnership – conditions that will benefit immensely from the marginalizing of Iran and its Islamist offshoots.

While the critics will say this is both unrealistic and a dodge – a means of avoiding territorial compromise and delaying Palestinian independence – Netanyahu will press it as the pragmatic path, the realistic path, the path that avoids the misconceptions and outright delusions that waylaid Olmert-Bush.

Even though he has, in Ehud Barak, the same defense minister whose hierarchy in the Olmert era doomed all manner of economic projects in the West Bank as unworkable because of security concerns, Netanyahu will offer a new readiness for cooperation to ensure many of the very same projects can now go ahead. He will urge Obama to join him in encouraging other Arab nations to invest in the Palestinian West Bank, an economy small enough to be rapidly revitalized, using the leverage of those terrified nations’ profound interest in America thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

It seems likely that he will also offer continuing Israeli support for the American-overseen training of Palestinian security forces – who passed a test in this new government’s highly skeptical view by helping ensure, in the cities where they were deployed, that West Bankers’ anger over Operation Cast Lead did not erupt into widespread violence.

But he will also doubtless note that the Palestinian Authority’s own prime minister, Salaam Fayad, acknowledges that, at present, the PA is in no condition to ensure stability were Israel to offer dramatic territorial withdrawals, and that any vacuum would only be exploited by the Islamists.

NETANYAHU’S SUCCESS in arguing for this gradual, careful, cautious approach, though, will hinge on his convincing Obama that his desire for a permanent separation from and reconciliation with the Palestinians – ultimately, when the conditions are truly ripe – is genuine. The old slogan asserts that ‘Only the Likud can’ make peace. Well, the ‘Yes we can’ sloganeer will have to believe not just that ‘Only the Likud can,’ but that the Likud, under this leader, really wants to.

To that end, Netanyahu can point to his readiness, albeit reluctant, as prime minister in 1997, to withdraw from most of Hebron, and his agreement, again albeit reluctant and never implemented, to the phased ‘pulses’ of West Bank withdrawal envisaged in the following year’s Wye River agreement.

He can certainly stress that his objections to Palestinian statehood are practical rather than ideological, stemming from the realist’s concern that a fully independent Palestine might abuse the rights of sovereignty to build up the military capacity to severely endanger Israel. In that same mindset, he will presumably explain that the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the ‘Jewish state,’ somewhere along the negotiating road, would offer encouraging evidence that the Palestinian leadership was truly internalizing, and telling its people about, our people’s historic legitimacy in this land.

But his credibility with the new president may well largely hinge on the issue of settlements. Bush was inclined to sympathize with at least some Israeli territorial claims beyond the 1967 lines. Nonetheless, he relentlessly demanded that Israel remove illegal outposts, and complained about the ‘remote settlements’ that threatened to turn the West Bank into ‘Swiss cheese’ and undermine the viability of a ‘contiguous’ Palestinian state.

Obama, who has less instinctive empathy for an expanded Israel, or none, will watch Netanyahu carefully on this. If there has to be a gradual process, the president might be expected to demand, don’t bury it gradually in the dust of settlement construction.

WATCHING NETANYAHU, too, of course, will be the disparate components of the prime minister’s multi-party coalition.

Almost unnoticed amid the furor surrounding Avigdor Lieberman’s prominence in the new government was the unexpected absence from it of the most uncompromising Greater Israel party, the National Union. Having learned lessons from the failures a decade ago, the Netanyahu of 2009 chose not to constrain himself with the NU’s presence, bidding instead to become the representative of those 70% or so of Israelis who both seek a viable accommodation with the Palestinians and doubt that one is attainable for now.

This new Netanyahu will stress that he has no desire to govern the Palestinians, and that while he will drive a hard territorial bargain he does want to separate from them to preserve a Jewish, democratic Israel.

He will also, no doubt, forcefully assert that a nuclear Iran will doom any peacemaking hopes, and that the thwarting of Iran will bolster them. Just recall, he may suggest, how the defeat of his ally Saddam Hussein so tangibly catalyzed King Hussein’s peacemaking interests.

Netanyahu is certain that the Iranians are playing for time, angling to manipulate the fresh president, and that Washington’s diplomatic engagement must be brief, otherwise Teheran will abuse it – much as it abused the previous European-led diplomatic effort – as cover to move all the way to the bomb.

Obama may well agree about the critical need to marginalize Iran. But he will also want an assurance from Netanyahu that Israel will do nothing – settlements, again – to reduce the prospect of Iran-threatened Arab regimes unifying behind whatever means prove necessary to blunt Teheran’s ambitions.

Pragmatism, each man will be saying to the other. Pragmatism, each man will be seeking in the other.

© The Jerusalem Post