Was it a cock-up? Or was it a conspiracy? In all probability it was a cocked-up conspiracy. By any standards it was an extraordinary diplomatic disaster. The announcement of Israel’s intention to build 1,600 homes in east Jerusalem antagonised the Palestinians and infuriated the international community.
That, by itself, would be unlikely to cause Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, to lose much sleep. But when you manage to humiliate the US Vice-President, who was visiting when the new homes were announced, and cause its Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to say that her country has been “insulted” you are in the middle of a serious international mess. This is not just an outside view. Israel’s Ambassador to Washington has said that US-Israel relations are “in the worst crisis since 1975”.
There are two views as to why it happened. One is the cock-up theory. New building in Jerusalem is the responsibility of a department that is controlled by a minister from the ultra-religious, nationalist Shas Party, which is a small, but powerful, element in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition Government. The suggestion is that they “forgot” to clear with the Prime Minister the timing of their announcement and, in any event, they would have been unconcerned about any damage it might do. In the chaotic state of Israeli politics this is not an entirely fanciful explanation.
The other explanation is more Machiavellian. Mr Netanyahu has, with skill and obstinacy, rejected Barack Obama’s demand for a total halt on all new settlement building throughout the West Bank. But he had committed himself to a nine-month suspension to help to kick-start indirect peace talks with the Palestinians.
In the Israeli view this concession was never intended to apply to East Jerusalem, which they see as a part of Israel as it was annexed by them after the Six-Day War in 1967. Mr Netanyahu had to reassure the more nationalist elements of his Government that the future of east Jerusalem would not be on the table. It therefore suited him to allow an “unofficial” announcement that he could claim he had not intended.
Mr Netanyahu has always been an astute tactician but a poor strategist. He may have been prepared to put up with the short-term damage, believing that the expansion of building on the West Bank would strengthen Israel in the long run. In fact, the reverse is more likely to be true. The short-term damage has been intense but will soon wear off. There have been such spats in the past, most notably in 1991 when the first George Bush denied important loan guarantees as a punishment for Israeli actions over settlements.
Although Israel’s Government in the short term will not suffer significantly, it is more vulnerable than it likes to believe. Precisely because Israel is a democratic society with Western values, the status quo for the Palestinian territories is increasingly untenable. If Mr Netanyahu continues to reject a viable, truly independent, Palestinian state with something like the pre-1967 boundaries, Israel is only left with two other options.
The first is that the West Bank, with or without Gaza, becomes part of Israel with equal rights for its citizens. In which case Israel would become a binational state with the prospect of a future Palestinian majority.
The alternative would be a nominal autonomy for the Palestinians with the Israelis retaining real control. That would be compared by many of Israel’s opponents with the bantustans created by the South African Government in the bad old days. There is a growing belief that that is what Mr Netanyahu has in mind. If it is, he must be made to realise that it would mean a severe erosion of support for Israel.
The Palestinians deserve their state and there can be no stability in the Middle East nor true security for Israel until it has been conceded. Britain, France and Germany have reached that conclusion. The same process is already happening in America. General Petraeus’s comments casting doubt on Israel’s strategic importance and warning that current Israeli policy may endanger American lives in the Middle East are more than straws in the wind. Mr Obama’s current domestic weakness will not halt a likely re-evaluation.
A clear majority of Israelis have already accepted the need for a Palestinian state. About half of its electorate reject the policies of Mr Netanyahu’s Government. What Israel needs, at its next general election, is a peaceful, democratic revolution, which would re-create an Israeli government with a genuine commitment to the two-state solution.
Would this require a miracle? Perhaps. But are not miracles more likely in the Holy Land than anywhere else?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, MP who served as Foreign Secretary between 1995-97.