BOSTON — Last spring I wrote that U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were eyeball-to-eyeball and we would soon see who blinked first. The confrontation was over Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Now, at summer’s end, it is becoming clear that Obama is beginning to blink.
In the spring Obama drew a distinct and unambiguous line in the sand. There was to be a total cessation of settlement activity: no internal expansion, nothing — a complete ban. Obama realized two important facts. One, that freezing the ever-expanding settlements that march over the hills of the West Bank and crowd Arab Jerusalem was the sine qua non of a two-state solution.
He saw that Jewish settlements were eating up what was left of Palestinian aspirations, and that without a freeze no peace between Arab and Jew would ever take place.
Secondly, Obama saw that he would need to move fast and right away in the beginning of his presidency when his power was at its zenith. Soon he would be subjected to the thousand cuts of office, and soon enough mid-term elections would elbow their way into White House calculations. Leaving an Israel-Palestine peace to a few weeks before he left office, as President Clinton did, would be a formula for failure.
Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, saw that Obama was a threat to his long-standing position that Israel should not give up the occupied territories, and that Palestinian aspirations would have to adjust to remaining under occupation indefinitely. Oh, conditions could be made better for them. But the attitude of the Israeli right — embodied by Netanyahu's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman — has been that the Palestinians have to accept that they are a defeated people and get used to it. Netanyahu is a master of prevarication, and has faced American pressure before. I was in Israel when the Oslo accords were announced 13 years ago, and, in an interview, Netanyahu was adamant that territorial compromise with the Palestinians was not the answer.
He has remained true to his core beliefs ever since. Oh, Netanyahu will attend conferences designed to get the peace process going. He is not against a process that will keep the temperature of international opinion down, but at the end of the day he is not for territorial compromise. He will agree that there needs to be a Palestinian state, but then make every condition possible to insure that it never happens. Thus Netanyahu will give way on the unimportant details in order to protect his core belief that the occupation must continue.
As Israel’s greatest supporter, indispensable ally and aid donor, the United States has some influence in Israel. Israel, in turn, has a powerful lobby in the United States — much of it dedicated to making sure pressure is not applied by the U.S. to Israel over the occupied territories.
When Netanyahu recently announced that hundreds of new homes in the West Bank would be built, Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said: “We regret the reports of Israel’s plan to approve additional settlement construction. The U.S. does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop.”
But the most Netanyahu appeared willing to give was a freeze of a few months.
Indeed, it began to appear that Obama’s line in the sand was drifting over what he first stated.
“In a negotiation, people always stake out a variety of positions,” said a State Department spokesman. “Will that be the final position? Who knows?” This ambivalence is not what we heard from the Obama administration last spring.
Obama appears to be backing down on an issue that he put at the top of his priorities, and it doesn’t appear that Israel will have to pay a price for defying the American president. Obama does not appear to be a Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ordered Israel to withdraw from the Sinai in 1956, or a George H.W. Bush, who withdrew loan guarantees to Israel over settlement expansion. Look for George Mitchell, the president’s special envoy, to attempt some face-saving language before the U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month, but only the gullible will be consoled. The ripple effects of Obama’s backing down will undermine his presidency. All the efforts to reach out to the Muslim world will come to naught if Obama stands by and allows Israeli settlements to continue with only a mild rebuke. Perhaps it would have been different had Obama not been so definite and clear that he wanted all settlement activity stopped. But having made his stand so firm, a retreat is all the more evident. Others around the watching world will perceive that Obama can be rolled, and they draw their own conclusions on how much they can get away with — just as John F. Kennedy’s perceived weakness when meeting Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 led Khrushchev to believe he could get away with placing missiles in Cuba.
Israelis and Palestinians have been in conflict since the twilight years of the 19th century when Jews, seeking a return to their ancestral homeland, began coming to what was then Ottoman territory in ever-increasing numbers. Neither people has been able to reach the necessary compromises that would allow them to live together in peace. Only the United States has the power and the influence to make a difference in this old quarrel. Not the least of the peoples Obama will be letting down if he allows settlements to continue are the Israelis themselves who will not now see peace in the life of Obama’s administration or, perhaps, even their own.