With the Great Revolt of 2011 shaking Arab capitals, Israel briefly seemed a Middle Eastern Switzerland when March began. There were no demonstrations, there was no dictator to protest, and there had been three years without terror. Gone were the once omnipresent security guards at restaurants, challenging you before you entered with a careful look and the question “Do you have a weapon?” Then on March 11, terrorists savagely murdered five members of a family in the settlement of Itamar, and on March 24, a Palestinian bomber brought back the old days: one dead, dozens wounded at a bus stop in Jerusalem. Israel’s short vacation from history had ended.
That vacation had been partial, to be sure. Hamas and other terrorist groups had periodically lobbed rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel, though here too the pace and range of the shots was suddenly climbing. And no doubt many terrorist attacks were foiled by steady police work. But the confrontation with the Palestinians was stalled, frozen, during the two Obama years. The leader of the PLO, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, has spent these years touring the world, avoiding any serious engagement with Israel. He has been a happy man: Travel is less stressful than the difficult work of state-building, which is left to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the lack of negotiations means Abbas avoids the controversial compromises a genuine negotiation would entail; and his refusal to negotiate has been arranged and defended by the Obama Doctrine that “settlement activity” is the true obstacle to Middle East peace. For it has been American policy since January 20, 2009, that Palestinians need not come to the table unless there is a 100 percent Israeli construction freeze in Jerusalem and the settlements.
The Obama administration abandoned that doctrine last November, and its champion, George Mitchell, ever since has been an invisible man. No policy has been proposed by the White House to replace its calamitous belief in the construction freeze delusion, at least not yet. But Israelis are sure something is around the corner and are debating whether to wait—or to act.
They fear two developments. The first is a Quartet Plan: a statement by the United States, the United Nations, Russia, and the European Union via the Middle East Quartet that proposes the outline of a final status arrangement. The Israeli nightmare has the leading nations of the world demanding terms about borders, security, and Jerusalem with which Israel cannot live—and then finding Israel further isolated and demonized. The EU is leading this Quartet effort, but every Israeli official with whom I spoke said the United States is waving the Europeans on and hiding behind them.
The second potential disaster is a Palestinian effort at the U.N. General Assembly in September, where the “State of Palestine” would be recognized on “1967 borders” and Israel’s presence in the West Bank would become the basis for a further expansion of boycotts, demonstrations, and delegitimization campaigns. These campaigns are well underway and especially in Western Europe would gain great strength from such U.N. action, it is argued.
Now, these fears may not pan out. What if the Quartet proposes new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations based on its outline, but the Palestinians—true to the Obama Doctrine of 2009-2010—yet again refuse to come to the table unless there is a total construction freeze? Palestinian intransigence would deliver Israel from its dilemma. European diplomats claim that Abbas has sworn he will negotiate if the Quartet Plan is sufficiently generous, a clever position that maximizes European incentives to buy his cooperation with language that leans further and further toward Palestinian demands. But unless and until the Quartet acts, no one can know for sure.
Israel may also be saved by moves toward “Palestinian unity,” meaning the replacement of the Fayyad cabinet with one consisting of technocrats who represent both Fatah and Hamas. Under the terms that have been discussed, security in the West Bank would remain exclusively in the hands of the PA security forces, while Gaza would remain under Hamas. Such an arrangement could benefit the PA because it would regain a presence in all the nonsecurity ministries in Gaza and begin to reestablish itself there. But the American relationship with the PA relies on the absence of Hamas from the government and the presence of an honest and effective prime minister in Fayyad. A Hamas role will raise immediate legal issues under our antiterrorism laws as well as political problems: Will the White House really demand that Israel negotiate with a coalition that includes terrorist groups? Will Congress, and even European and Arab aid donors, fork over cash if Fayyad is not there to guarantee that it will not be stolen?