Obama and Netanyahu could become good partners
By Michael Singh When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the conventional wisdom is often worth challenging. On Friday, former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu was tapped to try to form the next Israeli government. Netanyahu’s ascent and the overall victory of right-wing parties in the Israeli elections have ...
By Michael Singh
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the conventional wisdom is often worth challenging. On Friday, former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu was tapped to try to form the next Israeli government. Netanyahu’s ascent and the overall victory of right-wing parties in the Israeli elections have led to dire predictions of the collapse of the peace process and tensions in U.S.-Israel relations. Such predictions have a tendency to be self-fulfilling, however, and the Obama administration should be careful not to heed them.
In one sense, this entire discussion is premature. Netanyahu isn’t prime minister yet, and must endure a tough slog before he can take up the office. Likud won just 27 seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and needs a coalition of at least 61 seats to form a government. Though a number of political combinations are available, the basic choice before Netanyahu is between a "national unity" government with Kadima and/or Labor (though the latter won just 13 seats to Kadima’s 28) or a right-wing coalition. He has publicly displayed a preference for the national unity option, calling immediately during his acceptance speech for Kadima and Labor to join his government.
The outcome of the coalition negotiations will be critical in determining the shape of Netanyahu’s tenure. A broad grouping would require him to cede influential positions to his chief rivals but somewhat paradoxically could also provide him greater flexibility in setting policy. During his previous stint as prime minister, Netanyahu’s narrow coalition put him in a precarious position to make any significant moves on regional peace, and he doubtless wishes to avoid a repeat of that situation.
Assuming, however, that Netanyahu succeeds in forming a stable coalition and becoming prime minister, what can the U.S. expect from him, and what are the implications for U.S. interests?
Judging by his public remarks and his party’s platform, Netanyahu views Iran as Israel’s most immediate problem. This view is shared by most Israeli leaders (and other leaders in the region, for that matter) and is difficult to dispute. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons clearly poses a threat to Israel, but the challenge Iran poses to Israel goes much deeper. Iran funds, trains, and equips Hizballah and Hamas, two groups that, more than any others, are responsible for killing and terrorizing Israelis. Largely due to the actions of these groups, Israelis, as historian Michael Oren recently noted, have come to believe "that the conflict is not about 1967, but rather 1948." That is, Hamas and Hizballah seek not territorial concessions but the elimination of Israel, the same goal professed by certain Iranian leaders, and a goal that these groups would surely pursue more doggedly if afforded the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. If peace negotiations are to be more than a sideshow to deepening violence, Iran’s support for terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons must be stymied.
When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, most commentators have suggested that Netanyahu’s victory means that the peace process will be frozen. They cite his strong criticism of the post-Annapolis negotiations, his hard-line positions on issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements, and his avowed preference for dealing first with economic and security issues in any peace talks before getting to those so-called "core issues."
What these commentators fail to take into account, however, is that both Israelis and Palestinians are disenchanted with the peace process. Israelis have made major territorial concessions in Lebanon and Gaza only to suffer more terrorism emanating from the vacated land; Palestinians have seen few if any advances in freedom or prosperity over the past 15 years of talks; and both have suffered through years of sporadic violence. In this environment, views have hardened across the board, and mutual trust is near nil. As tough as Netanyahu’s positions may be on the "core issues," his chief rivals’ stated positions are frequently just as hard-line, reflecting how events have led to a rightward trajectory in Israeli politics.
In such an environment, we should be seeking not to preserve the peace process as it stands but instead reassessing the paradigms that have guided that process (see Elliott Abrams’s piece in the most recent Weekly Standard for an excellent discussion of this point). Years of talks focusing on the "core issues" to the exclusion of fundamental economic and security matters produced little progress. Therefore, Netanyahu’s suggestion that further work is needed to promote economic prosperity, political reform, and security (for example, by lifting checkpoints in the West Bank) should be viewed by the Obama administration not as a threat, but as a chance to make progress where it is sorely needed. While progress in these areas cannot substitute for eventual agreement on the "core issues," it could help to restore confidence between the two sides and sap the strength of extremists who feed on anger and resentment.
It is certain that difficulties and disagreements will arise between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. This is true of any two countries that are engaged in the pursuit of their own interests. But President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will agree far more than they disagree and will largely share the same goals in the region. The extent to which they can succeed in advancing them will depend not so much on whether they align ideologically, but rather the extent to which they are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom to find new solutions for old problems.
Michael Singh is a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC
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