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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Moving the red lines

Binyomin Netanyahu has, apparently accidentally, stumbled upon one of the best political weapons Israel has. And even he doesn't realize it.

When he took office, the Western press started obsessing over his non-use of the words "two state solution." The world made the assumption - despite "Ultra-Rightist Avigdor Lieberman's"' acceptance of the Roadmap - that Netanyahu was a super-hawk whose proposals for peace were smokescreens for his real desire to annex the entire Arab world and perform a genocide on all Palestinian Arabs. The pressure started to build and Netanyahu, like all recent Israeli leaders, buckled a few days ago when he tacitly seemed to accept "linkage" despite explicitly renouncing it:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to tear down settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank in return for US backing on its stance on arch-foe Iran, local media reported on Tuesday.

Netanyahu told his right-wing Likud faction on Monday that Israel would have to dismantle what it considers illegal outposts, as demanded by Washington, since the issue of Iran was more important, newspaper reports said.

"I identify the danger and that's why I am willing to take unpopular steps such as evacuating outposts. The Iranian threat is above everything," the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot quoted Netanyahu as saying.

"There are things on which you have to compromise."

Despite the seeming waves of pressure on Israel in reaction to Bibi's "intransigence," however, there has been an undertow in the opposite direction from his perceived lack of support for a two-state solution.

His reticence to say the magic words "Palestinian state" are causing people to openly wonder whether a such a state is desirable or feasible.

Canada's National Post has always been on the right wing in the Middle East conflict, but the following article (republished in the Vancouver Sun) would have been inconceivable a few months ago:
The two-state solution illusion

...A two-state solution sounds pleasant to Western ears. It seems the proper thing for Canadian politicians to say. Certainly the media would pillory Harper and Ignatieff were they to refuse to play along. But were Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to endorse the plan tomorrow—as Barack Obama wants as precondition to helping Israel resist Iranian nuclear agression—it would be utterly meaningless. “There is no partner on the Palestinian side,” [Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled] Toameh says. Israel's West Bank settlements are no obstacle, he adds; they are a red herring: a minor issue that Jerusalem will easily handle—based on its readiness to dismantle its settlements in the past—when the moment is right. That time is not now, and is not coming soon. Because, in today's environment, whatever proposed peace agreement is backed by Abbas would only be instantly rejected by Hamas, and any deal with Hamas—were any possible—reflexively rejected by Fatah. And neither group has much validity in citizens' eyes, he reports. In fact, Toameh mischievously suggests Netanyahu might be clever to try what Obama wants and publicly back a two-state plan immediately, if only to put the Palestinians and international peace-plan backers “in a corner” by revealing to all how truly impossible implementing anything of the sort would be under the current circumstances.

The international community’s error, says Toameh, is that it seems to think statehood is something to be handed to Palestinians, like a gift. It is, he believes, an undeserved one. “I believe a state is not something we should be given, it is something we should earn,” says the West Bank-born journalist. Far from demonstrating a capability to create a functioning, responsible civil society, he says, Palestinians have only proven their willingness to tolerate chaos, mob-rule and terror. They watched as, instead of building hospitals and schools and infrastructure with the billions sent to Ramallah and Gaza, Arafat lined his own pockets, Fatah fattened its cronies, and Hamas purchased weapons. On the one hand, Palestinians have fallen again and again for rotten leadership, which in turn, do their best to suppress the emergence of more responsible alternatives. On the other, Toameh seems to suggest that the Palestinians are getting the government they deserve. “Everything is going in the wrong direction, largely because of the failure of Palestinians to hold [their] government accountable,” he says.
Bibi has moved the very parameters of the debate, and that points to incredible political power.

The Arab/Israeli conflict is, ultimately, binary. There might be 22 Arab nations, 57 Islamic nations and an entire building of diplomats in New York's East Side who love to dump on Israel, but in the end Israel does not have to go along with anything that compromises its own red lines. Unfortunately, those lines have become fuzzy, to put it mildly, and each time Israel's leaders retreat from one of them the vacuum is instantly filled with more pressure to bring the lines in ever closer.

What Bibi has inadvertently proven is that the opposite is still true. If Israel's leaders stake out an uncompromising position that pushes the lines outward, even at this late date, there will be a perceptible shift in the world's reaction, even amongst the predictable criticism.

While previous Israeli governments have effectively ceded parts of Jerusalem, Bibi is at least publicly moving that line back outward. If he doesn't yield, the net effect would be to change the very discourse from "how much of Jerusalem should Israel give away" to "should Israel give any away." Similarly, his public statements on natural growth in the settlements would also change the very terms of the debate from "Israel should return all of the West Bank" to "How much should Israel return?"

When all is said and done, the resolution to the problem is not to be found in legal or historic or religious arguments - it will be the result of negotiations. Netanyahu has the potential to strengthen Israel's negotiating position immensely, if he chooses to, by simply being strong in his convictions.

As one of the sides in this lopsided conflict against her, Israel holds some impressive cards that cost little to show. And if Israel is to learn anything from its Palestinian Arab neighbors, it is that the consequences of saying "no" often end up being rewards.