When Joe Biden touched down in Tel Aviv on March 8, there was no indication that his visit would set off the most serious crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations in decades. The U.S. vice president arrived carrying the text of an effusively pro-Israel speech that was meant to assure skittish Israelis that the Obama administration would remain as committed as any of its predecessors to their security. Such an assurance, the administration evidently believed, was essential if the United States was to persuade the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove settlements from the West Bank in order to make way for a Palestinian state.
But Biden’s plans were soon upended. On March 9, a mid-level official in Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the approval of the fourth stage in a seven-part approval process for the construction of 1,600 residential units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. Geographically, Ramat Shlomo is in north Jerusalem, within the city’s municipal boundaries, and successive Israeli governments have insisted that they would never relinquish these areas in any final settlement with the Palestinians. But because the neighborhood lies across the Green Line (which separates pre-1967 Israel from those territories captured in the Six-Day War), it is widely seen by non-Israelis as being part of East Jerusalem, the side of the city envisioned as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Biden wasted no time in condemning the announcement, although he was also quick to accept Netanyahu’s apology for its timing.
Less forgiving, however, were Biden’s principal counterparts in the administration. On March 12, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu “to make clear the United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship,” according to Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley. And the president himself reportedly gave Netanyahu the chilliest of receptions when they met in the White House the following week.
Sundry pundits and policy experts are cheering this turn of events, saying the administration’s tough stance is good for America’s interests in the region, good for its standing in the Muslim world, and good for Israel’s long-term interests, too. But those now cheering may soon find themselves disappointed by what the Obama administration’s approach actually achieves. Why? Because it flies in the face of three hard political realities: Israeli, Arab, and American.
The Israeli reality is that the maximum Israelis are prepared to offer is less than the minimum Palestinians are prepared to accept. The Arab reality (which goes far to account for the Israeli reality) is that Islamism has broadly supplanted secular and nationalist politics, at least at the level of public sentiment. The American reality is that there are limits to what Washington can or is likely to do to reshape Arab or Israeli views in a way that would favor a settlement of the conflict.
Consider each of these realities from the perspectives of the players themselves.
First, imagine yourself as a quintessential middle Israeli -- barely religious, by no means enthralled by visions of Greater Israel, a self-described pragmatist who is only keen to be nobody’s fool. For 20 years, you have voted with the winner in every parliamentary election, from Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party in 1992 to Netanyahu’s Likud in 2009. You had high expectations for the Oslo accords and supported the withdrawal from Gaza, but you also cheered Ariel Sharon’s invasion of the West Bank in 2002 and Ehud Olmert’s wars with Hezbollah and Hamas.
If you are that Israeli -- which is to say, the constant plurality of the country’s recent past -- what conclusions are you likely to draw about the country’s peace-making efforts? The first conclusion is that peace with this generation of Palestinian leaders is unlikely. Correctly or not, Israelis overwhelmingly believe that Ehud Barak made a generous offer to Yasir Arafat at the 2000 Camp David talks and wasn’t even met with a counteroffer. The same goes for Ehud Olmert’s even more generous offer (again, in Israeli eyes) to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008.
The second conclusion is that although separation from the Palestinians is desirable in theory, it is very risky in practice. Israel withdrew from its “security corridor” in south Lebanon in 2000 but wound up having to go to war against a well-armed Hezbollah a few years later. Ditto for what happened after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. You have come to believe that even if Israel were to withdraw from the last millimeter of the West Bank, Palestinians would still find a reason to gin up claims against you, probably through continued insistence on the so-called right of return.
The third conclusion is that trends in Palestinian politics bode ill for a long-term settlement. Hamas handily won the 2006 parliamentary elections and easily evicted Fatah from power in Gaza the next year. Last year, the Fatah powerbroker Mohammed Dahlan insisted that the party would not urge Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist and, moreover, that Fatah itself (as opposed to the PLO) had “never recognized Israel’s right to exist.”
The fourth conclusion is that the Obama administration’s apparent hostility to Israel makes this a particularly inauspicious time to enter final-status negotiations. As the Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari -- a classic “middle Israeli,” albeit a uniquely astute one -- told Foreign Affairs in a recent interview, “It is very difficult for any Israeli prime minister to sit [at] . . . the negotiating table with the Palestinians when he is not fully coordinated with the U.S. president.”
Finally, although you are perfectly capable of seeing that Israel has a demographic time bomb on its hands if it continues to contain a growing Palestinian population within its borders, that danger seems remote and abstract for now. Israel, you think, relieved itself of much of the demographic problem when it withdrew from Gaza, which is now effectively a self-governing entity. Palestinians in the West Bank are also self-governing, even if their cities and towns lack geographic contiguity. And, thanks to the success of the separation fence in dramatically reducing the incidence of suicide terror, the people of Ramallah, Nablus, or Jenin rarely impinge on your daily life.
Besides, Israel has a more urgent time bomb to contend with: the centrifuges spinning in Iran. By contrast, the Palestinian problem can wait a few years.
Now turn to the Arab reality, this time by imagining yourself as Mahmoud Abbas.
In most personal respects, you are the opposite of your charismatic if erratic predecessor, which makes you popular in the West. In the Arab world, however, and particularly among Palestinians, you are mainly seen as a political placeholder living (or at least governing) on borrowed time. This hardly gives you the kind of personal authority needed to forge a peace with Israel over the objections of your more radical constituents.
You also lack democratic legitimacy. You have been ruling by decree since shortly after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006, and your term of elected office ended over a year ago. You have a competent and internationally respected prime minister in Salam Fayyad, but he competes for legitimacy with Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, the man elected to the job. Your country has been divided into geographically distinct political camps for nearly three years, since Fatah was militarily trounced by Hamas in a civil war.
Then there is the issue of your persona. Put simply, you’re an anachronism. You remain a believer in the Oslo accords while Palestinians are souring on the two-state solution. Your own negotiator, Saeb Erekat, recently urged that the accords be declared “null and void.” You are a committed secularist and nationalist, a product of Soviet education, in an era in which Islamist movements -- which disdain secularism and suspect nationalism -- are on the march throughout the Arab world. You knew Anwar Sadat and always remember his assassination at the hands of Islamic radicals avenging Egypt’s peace with Israel.
So you find yourself chasing the goal of a Palestinian state even as the idea of that state disintegrates all around you. Of course it helps that the Middle East Quartet has now offered March 2012 as a date certain for the end of “the occupation which began in 1967.” But even if that comes to pass, what is the likelihood that you or your successor can guarantee what the Quartet also expects – namely, “the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors”? Without the consent of Hamas, such a state will not be democratic or viable; with Hamas, it will not live for very long in peace and security with Israel.
Could Hamas change? As its leader Khaled Mashal flatly declared in 2006, “Anyone who thinks Hamas will change is wrong.”
Finally, imagine yourself as the proverbial senior administration official.
The president has signaled a decidedly new tone toward Israel, and now it is up to you to give that tone its substance. But how far, really, can Obama lean on Israel? Consider your options. Military aid is guaranteed by the 1978 Camp David agreement: Is the president prepared to rescind it? Voting for one of the U.N.’s typically lopsided resolutions would be a domestic political debacle, and not just on account of the so-called Israel Lobby: America remains an instinctively pro-Israel country. And a unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood, in the absence of a final settlement agreement with Israel, would destroy the U.S.-Israel relationship.
One thing you could conceivably do is apply enough pressure on the Netanyahu government that it switches coalition partners or loses office altogether. But, as Yaari told Foreign Affairs, “It’s impossible for any Israeli prime minister to say that he is going to forego Jerusalem before a final status negotiation with the Palestinians for end of conflict, end of claims.”
Indeed, by turning up the heat as he did, the president may have accomplished the opposite of what he intended. Israelis are now increasingly convinced that the administration is hostile not just to Netanyahu but Israel itself. At the same time, Palestinians now have reason to hold out for concessions on Jerusalem that they never previously expected to get and which no Israeli government is ever likely to grant.
Perhaps, then, the experience of recent weeks leads you to conclude that it is unwise for the United States to seek the trust of one party to the conflict by playing it against the other. That was the lesson of the Egyptian-Israeli experience, which allowed both Israel and Egypt to claim victory and the United States to keep a friend and gain a strategic partner. A similar approach could work with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead of seeking a new balance between the two sides, the administration could find ways to bond with them.
Hectoring the parties about their “best interests” won’t work, particularly for an administration that has promised to lecture less and listen more. Making unrealistic promises, like Palestinian statehood by 2012, is a recipe for Palestinian frustration and disenchantment. Nor will it help to threaten the loss of American friendship. As Obama is now learning with Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- who responded to a recent White House snub by inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul -- even governments far more dependent on U.S. help than Israel can exercise options that contradict U.S. interests.
It is time for something different. The president is now considering putting forward his own peace plan, perhaps on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. But this approach poses considerable political and strategic risks to the administration. What happens, for example, if one of the parties just says no? How would that affect the president’s prestige or limit his flexibility? Is the United States prepared to impose “consequences” on the naysayer? And what would those consequences be?