As someone who was critical of several steps by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the campaign leading up to his reelection, particularly his decision to address Congress and his statement seeming to reject a Palestinian state, I am even more troubled by statements now coming out of the White House calling for a reassessment of policy toward Israel, including a reconsideration of the historic American veto in the UN Security Council.
Let me be clear: I wish Mr. Netanyahu would do more to solidify relations with Israel’s ally in America and to stand up to those in Israel who seek to make impossible a Palestinian state. None of this, however, justifies what we are hearing from the Obama administration. Their reactions raise deeper questions about their intentions and perspectives.
From the beginning of the Obama years, there was a disturbing indifference to the mindset of the Israeli public, characterized by the president’s speech in Cairo and focus on Israeli settlements as the key obstacle to peace.
Talk of “neither party willing to make sacrifices for peace,” and even seeming to put the blame on Israel, simply disregarded the brutal reality of what Israelis went through for a decade starting with the Camp David meeting in 2000. There, a left-wing Israeli government, elected by a public hoping against hope that the Palestinians were finally ready to abandon their decades-long struggle against Israel, offered a true two-state solution to the Palestinians. Not only was it rejected, but violence and suicide bombs followed for years.
After that, Israeli leaders took two more steps toward that vaunted goal of two states: first the gut-wrenching withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and then the offer by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. Israelis saw these initiatives rejected again, together with Hamas taking over Gaza with its attendant rockets and war. In sum, Israelis saw an unrepentant foe still seemingly committed to irredentist goals.
Nothing much has changed since then on the Palestinian side. Hamas continues to control Gaza and, after another war, is seeking to rearm for the next conflict against Israel. And the Palestinian Authority has found every excuse to avoid negotiations, making it clear to Israelis that Palestinian leaders are far more interested in turning the international community and the U.S. against Israel than to resolving their internal problems and the conflict with Israel. Or put another way, they seemed interested in achieving a Palestinian state only if it meant not having to end the struggle against Israel.
What, therefore, would have been a reasonable response by Washington to recent developments?
Resentment at Mr. Netanyahu’s sidestepping the president is understandable. If there was concern about the election of a right-wing government, however, attention should have focused less on not liking what Israeli democracy produced and more on examining why Israelis voted as they did and what can be done to change that reality.
The answer lies not in the U.S. distancing itself from Israel, which will encourage Palestinians in their belief that they can have their cake and eat it, achieving a state without accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish state. And it will reinforce Israeli fears of being under siege.
Rather, it lies in doing something the administration has seemingly been reluctant to do: pressuring the Palestinians into finally making the qualitative leap toward accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish state. This and this alone could truly change the dynamic of the conflict that has been troubling the world for so long.
Steps that would represent such change would include concrete indications of finally recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, accepting that the Palestinian refugee problem would be resolved within a new Palestinian state, declaring that a peace accord would represent the end of the conflict and future demands and eliminating the hate campaigns in the media and schools against Israel and Jews.
The absence of any progress on all these issues over many years leaves Israelis with the belief that not much has changed on the Palestinian side, and that they need to tough it out until change comes.
There are good arguments against this Israeli approach even if there is no change on the Palestinian side. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opted for a unilateral initiative despite his belief that Israel currently had no peace partner. But as these elections show, most Israelis are ready to vote for security in the current environment.
On the other hand, if real positive Palestinian change would occur, that would generate the greatest impact for change on the Israeli side. A diminution of fears about Palestinian intentions is the best formula for a more moderate Israeli electorate and Israeli policies.
This should be a time for healing between American and Israeli leaders. The prime minister, the president and congressional leaders should not be trying to score points at the expense of the other. Instead they should refocus on the common values and interests of the two nations and recognize that we both face many common challenges in the Middle East.