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The United States and Israel: moment of truth

Akiva Eldar
18 May 2009

On the eve of his summit at the White House with Barack Obama on 18 May 2009, Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a distinctive claim: that although three Israeli prime ministers had supported a two-state solution, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had continued and, if anything, worsened.Akiva Eldar is an award-winning Israeli journalist

This article was first published in the newspaper Ha'aretz

Netanyahu better not try this argument with the United States president. Obama's conduct and the pre-summit messages sent by his aides demonstrate that the lesson they draw from the failure of the process launched in 1993 is completely different from the lesson Netanyahu learned. The current US administration, unlike Netanyahu, does not put the entire blame on the Palestinians. At best (from Netanyahu's perspective), the administration blames both sides equally. Obama should conclude that it would be wrong to waste time seeking a new solution to the conflict. It's much better to look for new ways to implement the old one; that is, to find better means of cajoling and enforcing than those used by previous US administrations.

But the conversation between the two men on 18 May could produce a much worse outcome: an agreement to set up "task forces" to "prepare the ground to renew negotiations" based on a two-state solution. This would allow the next Israeli prime minister to say that this miserable formula has guided four Israeli prime ministers and three American presidents. If Obama strives to develop mechanisms like the "roadmap", the Annapolis declaration and "task-forces", he might go down in history as the American president who put the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo process. The fifteen years of  the"peace process" have, after all, served as an alibi to build more than 100 new settlements and outposts in the West Bank; and to enlarge the settler population from 110,000 to nearly 300,000, excluding east Jerusalem.

Even if Binyamin Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, spend the rest of their days negotiating the final settlement, the lack of an active mediator presenting a detailed plan might make Obama's two-state solution turn out very much like George W Bush's Palestinian-state vision. Without an American leader equipped with both carrots and sticks, the president's initiative will be forgotten, just like the Bush-instigated United Nations decision to establish a Palestinian state. Without all this, Iran will mock the peace plan sold to Obama by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

To convince both Palestinians and Israelis that the rules of the game have changed, Obama must demand that Netanyahu carry out his part of an agreement he actually signed with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat: the Wye River Memorandum of October 1998. A reminder: at Wye river, Netanyahu promised to change the status of 1% of Area C (under Israeli civilian and military control) to Area A (complete Palestinian control), and 12% to Area B (Israeli military and Palestinian civilian control). He also committed to resume negotiations immediately on the territories' permanent status, and to avoid any changes to the territories' current status.

Netanyahu will probably claim that his honouring of the agreement was what brought down his first government (June 1996-July 1999). However, Netanyahu's cabinet secretary and negotiator Dani Naveh revealed in a memoir that at the height of the Wye summit, an unpublished survey showed that 46% of Jewish Israelis supported Netanyahu, while 37% supported Ehud Barak (the overall Israeli population at the time was split 41%-37% in Netanyahu's favour).

Despite this support, Netanyahu avoided implementing the agreement, missed a chance to set up a national-unity government, bowed down to the radical right, lost the American president's trust, and eventually lost the prime minister's chair as well. A Ha'aretz-Dialog poll published on 15 May 2009 finds that most of the Israeli population supports an agreement with the Palestinians on a two-state basis. Now, as then, Netanyahu's fate rests in the United States president's hands.

Also in openDemocracy on Israeli politics and the Palestinians:

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" - in eleven parts (April-May 2002)

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" - in three parts (September 2003)

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (November 2005)

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (19 April 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Prince Hassan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel: how things fell apart" (13 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (13 February 2009)

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