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?
Here again the outcome is uncertain. Under the Palestinian Basic Law, Fayyad’s time to form a new cabinet has already run out, been extended, and run out again, and Abbas must now ask someone else to attempt to form a government. But the Basic Law has been ignored a thousand times and may be again, and Abbas has good reason to worry about any kind of unity government—for if there is unity and cooperation, what is the excuse for delaying parliamentary and presidential elections, both of which appear to inspire no enthusiasm among Abbas and his old cronies in the Fatah party?
So on the international scene and within Palestinian politics, Israel cannot be entirely sure what it will soon face. Much more important, no one can say with assurance where things are heading in Cairo, Amman, Beirut—or now even Damascus. Many Israeli officials therefore counsel waiting, or “watchful waiting,” or “letting the dust settle,” or a dozen other terms that all mean “Israel should do nothing.” This is hardly a moment for bold steps, they argue.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the problem of predicting in whose hands the key Arab states (and their armies) will be tomorrow morning is compounded by politics in Jerusalem and Washington. In Jerusalem, any bold move could destroy his coalition, leading Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party to bolt. Lieberman may want to do so soon anyway, wishing to act before his expected indictment this year on a variety of financial charges. Numerically, those Knesset votes could be replaced by the greater number of seats (28 versus 15 for Lieberman) held by the Kadima party, a natural partner for Likud should Netanyahu decide on some initiative, but most Israeli observers think this a doubtful outcome. Netanyahu and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni have been attacking each other regularly in the past year, so personal relations are shot. And with Netanyahu now two years into his term, Livni may wonder why she should rescue him and be his foreign minister when in another year she might be his successor as prime minister instead. Some analysts argue that if Netanyahu undertook a big initiative Livni would have to support it, perhaps from outside the government: She could say she would not use votes of confidence to bring him down as long as some agreed plan was under way. But it doesn’t take a genius to see why Netanyahu fears being in that position, his political fate dependent on a party and a person—even if she is serving as his foreign minister—itching for his collapse. So Netanyahu is thinking. In early March his spokesmen talked of a major speech soon, perhaps delivered in Washington, but then backed away from the plan. A big, bold step is attractive to Netanyahu, but not one that turns out to be politically suicidal.
“Bibi is torn,” one adviser to the Israeli government told me. “He understands the camp saying the momentum is strongly against Israel now, saying U.N. action to recognize a Palestinian state against Israel’s wishes could be dangerous. He understands pressure will grow, isolation may grow, boycotts in Europe may grow. He knows we could be a lot worse off in a year than we are now. But he knows what he wants to prevent, not what to do to prevent it. He has no real policy. He’s just like Obama.”
And Obama is a critical factor here. Entirely missing is a relationship of confidence between the United States and Israel that might foster boldness or risk-taking. In a situation in late 2003 where negotiations were dead in the water and diplomatic initiatives he viewed as dangerous were surfacing, Ariel Sharon acted: He decided to get out of Gaza. But in reaching and implementing that decision he had the full support of George W. Bush, with whom he carefully negotiated a series of supportive statements and pledges.
Sharon decided to act without an agreement with the Palestinians: “I will take these new steps as unilateral steps; I don’t want to be in their hands,” he told me at the time. The theory was simple: If there is no real negotiating partner, try to shape Israel’s future yourself. Don’t wait, and don’t limit yourself to what the Palestinians will agree to right now. But Sharon asked Bush for what he called “ideological compensation” to make up for the lack of actual compensation from the Palestinians for his moves. There would be no peace treaty, no Palestinian concessions, no abandonment of claims by the PLO; instead there was Bush’s endorsement of several critical Israeli positions in his April 14, 2004, letter to Sharon. There Bush addressed both the refugee and settlement issues. He stated that Palestinian refugees had no “right of return” to Israel and would have to find a future and a solution in the eventual state of Palestine, and he argued that a return to the 1949 armistice lines—a term he used in preference to “1967 borders”—was unrealistic given the existence of the major settlement blocks. To Sharon these statements by the president of the United States were critical gains for Israel, and they were soon endorsed by resolutions in both houses of Congress.
But those statements have been forgotten and abandoned by the United States, treated by the Obama administration as if they were some kind of private gesture by Bush in a personal note to Sharon. This devaluation of solemn pledges among allies has been a huge Obama mistake, for it undermines the value not only of past American pledges but of his own future words as well and makes Israel far less likely to take risks for peace.
So Netanyahu faces a series of difficult choices with few safety nets in view. Old partners like Mubarak are gone; domestic politics presents the usual Israeli field of battle (President Bush once described the Knesset as a “shark tank”); and the Obama administration is universally viewed in Israel as unsympathetic and unhelpful. Netanyahu can be forgiven for hesitating, hoping that some Palestinian error will save him or that he will find a magic solution that will meet all his needs, avoid risks, preserve his coalition, and escape international censure.
But Israel has not survived into 2011 by such a posture, and it should act—not wait for the EU, the U.N., the Palestinians, or the Americans. If there is a Quartet plan, Israel should accept it unless it is hopelessly and irredeemably biased and should demand immediate negotiations with the Palestinians—not because they will succeed but as a means of shifting pressure away from Israel. Several Israeli officials told me they feared the Quartet would endorse “1967 borders,” or “1967 borders with agreed swaps,” at least as a basis for negotiations. It is impossible that the Quartet would endorse “1967 borders,” for Americans and even the Europeans understand this would put the Western Wall inside Palestine, an absurd result. The swaps formula is manageable: Israel should reply to it by saying, “Okay, then we all agree, just as President Bush said in 2004 there will be no return to the 1949 Armistice lines. We are glad to see the Quartet acknowledging this basic truth.”
But Israel should not be frozen in fear of a Palestinian declaration of independence or recognition at the U.N. and should in fact head it off. Perhaps the next country to recognize an independent Palestine should be Israel.
This is, after all, a declared Israeli policy goal. As early as June 2003, Sharon said it at the Aqaba Summit: “Israel, like others, has lent its strong support for President Bush’s vision . . . of two states—Israel and a Palestinian state—living side by side in peace and security. . . . It is in Israel’s interest not to govern the Palestinians but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state.” His successors Olmert and Netanyahu have also endorsed this outcome. It is obvious that Israeli recognition would immediately devalue that Palestinian diplomatic campaign aimed at racking up additional endorsements each week, and could allow Israel to help define what “recognition” means anyway. For example, does Israel “recognize” Syria, a regime with which it has been in a state of war since the day it came into existence? “Recognizing” that Syria exists as a state eliminates none of the disputes between Israel and Syria. Many of the countries that have “recognized” Palestine have used different verbal formulas in doing so and mean different things by them, and Israel’s own formula would make that fact even clearer and therefore more confusing.
Israel should say that with this new state of Palestine it has a million practical issues to discuss, beginning with grave border disputes but continuing from customs issues to the management of the Allenby Bridge to possible use of Mediterranean ports. Personal status issues are dangerous and complex: What is the situation of Israelis in areas the state of Palestine views as its own? Is it the Palestinian position that the new state must be Judenrein, a position President Abbas has repeatedly taken? Israel should immediately challenge that position in every possible forum, for it is an indefensible racist view that the EU for one will have to denounce. Israel should demand immediate negotiations on all these complex matters, and remind the world that the dozens of statements “recognizing a Palestinian state” actually do nothing to advance the parties toward the resolution of the issues they face. In fact, commencement of practical negotiations on some of these issues between Israel and “Palestine” might lessen their appeal as great causes and turn them from emotional claims into tedious and detailed bargaining positions.
But this is diplomatic gamesmanship to combat diplomatic gamesmanship. Protecting Israel’s interests may start with clever diplomacy but cannot end there. If Israelis are convinced they must separate from Palestinians, who should “govern themselves in their own state,” they should begin to change the pattern of their presence in the West Bank. There is a wide consensus in Israel that separation from the Palestinians is right, and safer, and in Israel’s long-run interest: Since the second intifada the dream of living together in peace has been dead, but the goal of living apart in peace is not. Yet current Israeli policy treats separation as a prize the Palestinians must win through concessions at the negotiating table, as if it were in the Palestinians’ interest but not Israel’s. That is a self-defeating stance, incurring growing penalties in international isolation and condemnation while moving Israel no closer to its desired goal. Israel should start to disentangle itself from governing the West Bank and the Arabs who live in it, and if this cannot be achieved through negotiations with the Palestinians it should be achieved through Israeli-designed unilateral steps that maximize Israeli security interests. One example: passage in the Knesset of a compensation law buying the home of any settler who wishes voluntarily to move back behind the security fence, whether to Green Line Israel or a major settlement. Another: turning additional areas within the West Bank over to the PA for normal daily governance. Such moves, which signal an intention to change the ultimate pattern of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, do not require abandoning the IDF’s security role there. Nor do they require or accept a total settlement freeze, which would be counterproductive: Whatever the wisdom of a freeze in outlying settlements that will eventually become part of Palestine, to freeze construction in the major blocs that will remain parts of Israel is to send exactly the wrong message.
Israeli officials should explain the policy to the Obama administration and the Europeans (among whom some consequential leaders, like German chancellor Angela Merkel, are still friendly to Israel): It looks like final status negotiations are not on, and anyway they may take forever or may fail. So Israel will act, trying to shape a better future for itself without harming the Palestinians. We won’t wait for them, but nothing we are doing closes off possibilities for future agreements. In fact, reaching those agreements will become easier over time, not harder, if Israel begins to act now. Israel should use as its set of principles the Bush letter of April 14, 2004, in essence demanding that the United States adhere to pledges made about the key issues. No “right of return” for Palestinian “refugees” except to the new state of Palestine; secure and defensible borders for Israel; no full return to the 1949 lines, given the new realities on the ground; final borders to be mutually agreed; Israel as a Jewish democratic state. But Netanyahu will have to act as well as speak, telling both Israelis and foreigners what he will do to begin to shape an outcome where there are no Israelis in over 90 percent of the West Bank. He can maximize the ability of Israel’s friends and supporters, not least in this country, to support Israel if he acts with boldness and principle to guarantee the future safety of the Jewish state.
Netanyahu will also need to explain that when acts of terror emerge from the West Bank they will evoke the air and land responses needed to keep Israel safe and keep those territories from terrorist control. In the long run, it is difficult to see a secure Palestine without some link to Jordan, though it may take years to emerge. Whether that is in the end a “dual monarchy” arrangement—one king, two parliaments, two prime ministers, with the formal creation of a Jordanian-Palestinian entity—or a security deal allowing for a significant Jordanian role in trilateral security arrangements among Palestine, Israel, and the Hashemite Kingdom, remains to be seen, but no such options should be discarded.
Netanyahu, who quit his position of finance minister under Ariel Sharon when Sharon began the disengagement from Gaza, now finds himself in a remarkably similar spot. In addition to the coalition troubles he faces, he has a very tough political problem within Likud. Moreover, he must face the settler lobby and decide whether to challenge it now. He should, for at bottom he has a message that the vast majority of Israelis and indeed the vast majority of settlers accept: that the security of the State of Israel is paramount. Zionism aims at a Jewish democratic state, which in turn requires a territory where Jews are the majority. That was the logic of partition in 1948, and it remains the logic behind separation from the West Bank and the 2.5 million Palestinians who live there. Zionism also taught self-reliance, acting to create facts rather than relying on luck or fate or someone else’s benevolence to do the job.
The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, Abba Eban famously said, and their political division and terrorist leaders may save Israel yet again from extremely difficult decisions. But most Israelis understand that relying on Palestinian errors to protect themselves is dangerous: Israel cannot win itself a secure future by watching and waiting and avoiding action. Israel’s future requires separation from the Palestinians, and neither the upheavals in Arab capitals nor the presence in Washington of the least friendly president in decades changes that.
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.