Winners and Losers in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock

Commentary No. 278, April 1, 2010

Anyone who thinks there is going to be any significant change in the status quo in Israel/Palestine is suffering from multiple delusions. The Israeli government is dead set against the creation of a Palestinian state, even a weak Palestinian state, and this view has the support of a very large majority of the Israeli Jews. The Palestinian leaders are more divided. But even the most accommodating are not willing even to consider anything less than a state based on the 1967 frontiers, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The rest of the world cannot budge either side. This is called deadlock.

The question is who gains and who loses by deadlock? The Israeli political elite seem convinced that they will gain. There is a very large group who are so resolutely irredentist that they would consider a peace agreement a veritable disaster. The Israelis have always thought that if they dug in their heels, eventually the rest of the world (including even the Arab Palestinians) would yield to what they call “realities on the ground.”

This policy has worked now for a long time. So why change it? However an increasing chorus of friendly supporters are warning them that the world political climate has been changing, and not to the advantage of the Israelis. They are pointing out that the alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution, and that in a single state Jews will very soon become a minority of the population. In this case, if there is universal suffrage, the state can no longer be a “Jewish state.” And if suffrage is denied to non-Jews, the state cannot be considered even remotely democratic.

Just last month, one very well-known friendly supporter, Thomas L. Friedman, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, which caused a big stir. Entitled “Driving Drunk in Jerusalem,” he reprimanded U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden for not leaving Israel immediately when his arrival was greeted with the insulting announcement of new Jewish housing being planned in East Jerusalem. Friedman said Biden should have told Israelis: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk.”

A second long-time friendly supporter, Leslie H. Gelb, published a blog entitled “Israel Plays with Fire.” In it, he predicted: “Israeli leaders will not like the way their little power slap [of Biden] plays out.”

So why didn’t Biden do what Friedman suggests? There are two kinds of answers. One was by Uri Avnery, one of the few Israelis consistently critical of his government’s positions on these issues. He said that the Israeli government once again spat in the face of the United States. He closed his article with the old saying: “When you spit in the face of a weakling, he pretends it is raining. Does this apply to the president of the most powerful country in the world?”

The second is to talk of the realities of U.S. politics. Obama, like U.S. presidents before him, hasn’t yet done anything serious except reiterate eternal support for Israel, even though many Israelis think that the few overtures to the Arabs that he does make (like his speech in Cairo) is already too much. Just recently, the Israeli Prime Minister’s brother-in-law went on the Israeli Army radio to accuse Obama of being an anti-Semite because of that speech.

The U.S. government does not do anything much, and never has, because support for Israel’s hard line is widespread in the United States. It is not merely the strength of what is an important and aggressive pro-Israeli lobby, AIPAC. It is not only that the Christian right has adopted a super pro-Zionist position. It is that leading Democratic politicians are deeply committed to such support, and Obama has enough problems with many Democratic politicians that he is not anxious to struggle with them on yet one more front.

Will the U.S. government continue this policy? Support for Israel has slumped seriously in western Europe in the last decade, because of the obduracy, the callousness, and the oppressiveness of Israeli behavior towards the Palestinian Arabs – most notably, but not only, in Gaza. Support for Israeli hard line positions has weakened also among significant segments of the Jewish population in the United States. But now it seems there may be a new source of criticism.

Marc Perry has revealed in an article in Foreign Policy that, on Jan. 16, a team of senior officers from the U.S. Central Command or CENTCOM (responsible for the Middle East) briefed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, on the worries of Gen. David Petraeus, head of CENTCOM, about the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. It seems that Petraeus and his officers have been getting a consistently critical message from all the Arab leaders they meet. Petraeus apparently concluded: “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.” In short, the deadlock was hurting the U.S. military’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perry’s conclusion: There are several very powerful lobbies in Washington–the National Rifle Association, the American Medical Association, the lawyers, and AIPAC of course. “But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military.” So Petraeus was warning Mullen: “America’s relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of American soldiers.” Since Petraeus was put into his position by George W. Bush and has been seen by the American right as a tough hard-liner on the military role of the United States in the Middle East, they can hardly now accuse him of being a sell-out.

Israeli intransigence has paid in the short run. But it is suicidal in the middle run – as Friedman and Gelb were implicitly pointing out, and Petraeus was underlining. The Israeli hardliners have been ready to denounce anyone who doesn’t support them 101%. But if they think they can win by now calling Friedman and Gelb “self-hating Jews” and Petraeus an “anti-Semite,” they are even more deluded than I think they are. Gelb ended his blog by warning: “This is no time for Israel’s leaders to test the depth and stability of America’s support for their country.”

Netanyahu went to Washington to see if he could appease an angry President Obama. It seems he didn’t succeed.

The world is moving inexorably towards the one-state solution (as in South Africa), whether or not this is wise, whether or not the U.S. government is ready to take a truly tough line with the Israelis, and whether or not the Israeli leadership finds it remotely acceptable.