The greetings President Obama extended last week to Israel’s new government may have sounded conciliatory, but Mr. Obama no longer entertains any illusions about Israel’s leaders.
In the wake of last month’s election, the longtime peace activists and diplomats who have devoted much of their professional lives to achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more depressed and demoralized than ever before.
Well before Mr. Netanyahu declared during the recent election campaign that Palestinians would remain under Israeli military occupation as long as he is Israel’s prime minister, Mr. Obama understood that the Israeli government’s enthusiasm for continued peace talks with the Palestinians served no purpose other than to provide cover for Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements and to preclude the emergence of anything resembling a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
Faced with this grim reality, some observers naïvely rooted for the center-left Zionist Union during the campaign. But the notion that a government led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni might have produced a two-state accord with the Palestinians was also a delusion. An agreement based on the 1967 lines never appeared in the Zionist Union’s platform or crossed Mr. Herzog’s lips.
Indeed, it was clear to anyone familiar with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that what little hope remained for a two-state solution would depend on the emergence of an Israeli government entirely under the control of Israel’s far right. Only a far-right government that so deeply offends American democratic sensibilities — as this one surely will — could provide the political opening necessary for a change in America’s Middle East policy.
Mr. Netanyahu has wasted no time providing that offense by appointing as his justice minister a Knesset member, Ayelet Shaked, who approvingly posted an article on her Facebook page that called for the destruction of “the entire Palestinian people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.”
The victory of Israel’s far right has thus provided an unexpected, if narrow, opening for Mr. Obama, allowing him to call for a reassessment of America’s peace policy.
Such a reassessment must begin by abandoning the old assumption that Palestinians can achieve statehood only by negotiating with Mr. Netanyahu. Because of Mr. Netanyahu’s statements and behavior during the elections (not to mention the continued construction in the settlements), that belief has been irreparably discredited. It is now certain that a two-state agreement will never emerge from any bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Such an agreement can only be achieved if the United Nations Security Council, with strong support from the United States, presents the parties with clear terms for resumed peace talks that will produce an agreement within a specified timeframe. (This would go far beyond a rumored French proposal.)
If either Israel or Palestine, or both, do not accept the Security Council’s terms, or fail to reach agreement within the specified timeframe, America would then join with other countries in asking the Security Council to resolve the outstanding final-status issues like the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and illegal settlements and security arrangements.
A right-wing Israeli government will of course not accept a Security Council decision calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and an end to Israel’s occupation. But such a decision would encourage international boycotts of Israel and challenges to its legitimacy. Israel’s status as a democracy would be widely questioned, and America’s unconditional friendship and support would inevitably be eroded. These circumstances would be far more likely to change Israel’s policies than any of the present strategies.
Such a shift by the Obama administration would no doubt encounter fierce domestic opposition from the Israel lobby and many members of Congress. But the disappointment with Mr. Netanyahu’s policies that I believe is becoming increasingly widespread among non-Orthodox segments of the American Jewish community (and possibly even within parts of its sclerotic establishment organizations) could provide Mr. Obama with the political space he needs to move decisively in a new direction.
The United States government has never made an unconditional commitment to Israel to block a Security Council role in bringing about a two-state peace accord. It committed to blocking a Security Council role only so long as there is a reasonable prospect that the parties might reach such an accord on their own. That prospect no longer exists.
America has made an unconditional commitment to Israel’s security — and rightfully so. But that commitment is in danger of eroding if the Obama administration continues to prevent the Security Council from pursuing a two-state agreement while continuing to provide Israel with the military assistance that helps it keep the occupation in place.
America would then be seen as collaborating with Mr. Netanyahu’s government in the continued subjugation of the Palestinians. That would irreparably damage the United States’ honor and its national interests.
America’s commitment to Israel’s security obliges it to push the Security Council to seek an end to the occupation and pave the way for Palestinian statehood.
Henry Siegman, a former head of the American Jewish Congress, is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.