February 13, 2011

Has Israel given up on history?

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has an informative look at how far Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas had progressed toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, before Olmert stepped down as Israel's Prime Minister under a cloud of financial allegations. Since the Egyptian uprising started gaining steam two weeks ago, various voices -- including Olmert -- have insisted that now is the time to push forward with the Palestinians, instead of hunkering down. I happen to agree on a wishful, geopolitical level, but practically this cannot happen.

First, the reasoning for taking a break: The revolution/coup in Egypt underscores the ephemeral nature of any peace agreement with either a dictatorship or an Islamist-influenced Arab state, including the Palestinians -- in other words, no existing or future Arab state is presumed to be a reliable partner. That's quite a prison term for an isolated Israel. And it's a caricature of the reality, where Israel has used a 30-year respite from existential threats (Iran's someday nuclear weapons notwithstanding) to absorb one million post-Soviet immigrants and occupy the top tier of high-tech industry and economics.

Next, the reasoning for pushing forward now: It's precisely the negative potential for any changes that makes it urgent to push for peace now, while Abbas (and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad) still retains some control of the situation. Because Sadat committed Egypt to the binding peace treaty in 1979, and the United States committed to bankrolling both the Israeli and Egyptian concessions in effective perpetuity, no Egyptian government can ever afford to abrogate the legal arrangement. If Egypt's military rulers ever hand over power to a democratically elected government, it's unlikely that such a coalition would be inclined or focused enough to agree to such a deal today. And the absence of Mubarak as a regional broker makes it less likely that both sides can bridge the remaining gaps, or that Hamas will ever sign on.

Now, why this won't work: Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel, has proven by his actions that he is less interested in a final arrangement with Palestinians than with postponing any day of reckoning for as long as possible. U.S. President Barack Obama might have used Mubarak's resignation as an opportunity to yank Netanyahu forward, but he already gambled his political capital on a settlement freeze -- twice -- and now Netanyahu's Republican allies on Capitol Hill have the White House playing defense on domestic issues.

Obama's biggest foreign policy success his first two years in should have been sealing the old Olmert-Abbas deal, but instead he settled for negotiating and ratifying the New START nuclear treaty with the Russian Federation (thanks for nothing, Bibi) and is devoting the foreign policy for the rest of his term to China and Africa. With the mass turnover of White House staff, there will be no one to keep the Israeli-Palestinian track on his front burner, especially with the re-election campaign already gearing up (and Republicans anxious to pounce on any perceived tensions with Israel as signs of Obama's weakness or animosity).

Of course, there are so many reasons why Israel should never trust any peace deal with anyone. Netanyahu will not be blamed for missing yet another historic opportunity, because it takes true vision and courage to step up and challenge destiny. As Prime Ministers, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon each withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza, respectively, but without the benefit of bilateral agreements. Yet, those two withdrawals -- and not Sinai -- are used as the examples of what happens when Israel makes concessions.

When Israel takes risks and makes actual concessions to an actual interlocutor in exchange for actual U.S. guarantees, in fact, dramatic things have happened locally and internationally. But Netanyahu and an alarming proportion of Israelis have had enough of making history, at least for now. Increasingly, they see history as a threat, and they take comfort in having learned their own lessons.

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