The Obama administration has lost all patience with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiant challenges to two basic U.S. goals: a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace and a nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu’s hostility and the emergence after the March 15 elections of a new, more right-wing coalition, have triggered a major crisis in relations and an apparent decision by Obama to “reevaluate” U.S. policy.
This crisis confirms that U.S. relations with Israel have become a dysfunctional one-way street. Obama wants a new relationship to protect American interests, keep alive hope for a two-state peace, and create a more positive legacy.
Tensions have been building for years. Obama has made extraordinary efforts to reinforce Israel’s defenses, create peace with the Palestinians, and shield Israel in the UN. But Netanyahu has stiff-armed peace talks and accelerated settlement building. His speech to Congress secretly organized by Obama’s Republican foes to defeat the nuclear deal deepened the breach.
The final blows came just before the elections when Netanyahu reneged on his 2009 commitment to two states and pandered to racial fears by warning of a large turnout of Arab voters.
In response, the White House press secretary said that the United States “is in a position to reevaluate [its] thinking.” He and other officials said a new policy might support a UN Security Council resolution with principles for two states, signaling a possible major policy shift. Obama confirmed this March 24 at a press conference. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced March 27 that France is planning to push for such a resolution.
Netanyahu has tried to walk back his “no two states” promise. But Obama challenged his credibility, calling the dispute a “real policy difference,” not a matter of personality. He warned that Netanyahu has made prospects for a two-state peace “very dim,” and that the disagreement between the United States and Israel “can’t be reduced to a matter of…hold[ing] hands and sing[ing] ‘Kumbaya.’”
Israeli officials are blaming Obama for the crisis, but hinting that Netanyahu will make amends by further qualifying his “no two states” comment and other ways to ease tensions. They mentioned releasing $400 million of Palestinian tax revenues, which was later announced; lifting certain restrictions in the West Bank; and allowing some Gazans to work in Israel. Such palliatives, which have been offered but often not fulfilled in the past, would not change the reality that Netanyahu and his right-wing allies will continue opposing a genuine two-state peace.
The Israeli election results were based on many issues. But the vote, coming in the midst of Netanyahu’s s fraying of relations with Washington, seemed to confirm that many voters agree with Netanyahu that Israel can preserve the status quo and rebuff American objections. This is further evidence that years of American pledges of unconditional support and acquiescence to harmful policies have encouraged a sense of impunity.
A serious reevaluation of U.S. policy should seek to change the current dysfunctional U.S.-Israel relationship through tougher policies designed to influence a pro-peace shift in Israeli public opinion, while building hope for peace in the process.
U.S. support for a UN Security Council resolution with parameters for two states would be an effective beginning. It would bury the now-discredited mantra that only bilateral talks can bring resolution. It would provide an international sanction and the imprimatur of international law for a two-state solution that is now on the brink of failure, and a placeholder to discourage further deterioration before real peace efforts can resume. It would also set a clearer public baseline for U.S. policy that would enable Obama’s successor, who will also confront the Israel-Palestine mess, to avoid starting from scratch.
Among other options, the United States could resume the policy, dropped in 1972, of condemning settlements as “illegal” under the Fourth Geneva Convention. It could also support selected resolutions in the UN General Assembly or other fora that justifiably criticize Israeli settlements or human rights violations. Other policies that could bear fruit in Obama’s last two years would be persuading Israel to lift the closure of Gaza to ease the humanitarian disaster there, and a strategy to encourage Palestinian reunification.
No less important, the United States must fashion a new dialogue that combines hope, empathy, and hard-headed candor, using the following themes.
America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains strong. But true security is impossible without a genuine Israeli commitment to a two-state peace through real negotiations and mutual compromise. This will require ending Israel’s occupation and settlements that stand in the way of peace and security for both sides and an agreed border based on the 1967 line with some land swaps. Occupation and settlement violate the concept of shared values that has been the foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship. The United States wants strong, mutually beneficial relations with Israel. But ties must be a two-way street. Success requires a new and steadfast Israeli commitment to a two-state peace. The Palestinians must also commit to a lasting peace, and the United States will work equally hard to ensure that they meet their obligations.
A reframing of U.S.-Israel relations should convey honest warnings and hope. It should reassure many in Israel's center and left who are worried about their country's future of America's resolve to help. This could help galvanize a revival, now just beginning, of a peace-minded opposition and empower what may be a silent majority for peace.
Skill and resolve will be needed to reshape relations and help move Israel toward peace. Here at home the president will have to withstand fervent opposition from Republican foes and the conservative Jewish establishment. This can be accomplished by working with potential allies, especially liberal Jews who are on the ascendancy, and including mainstream Christians, Muslims, and Arab Americans. If Obama reaches out to mobilize such a coalition, he would be pushing on an open door.
Some Democrats, including possible presidential candidates, who dislike the status quo will nevertheless advise caution, anticipating the 2016 elections and risks to fund-raising. But the president, freed of the burden of reelection himself, and in need of a more positive historic legacy, has more to gain than lose.