Obama and the Israel-Palestine quagmire

By Max J. Castro
As he wades into the Israeli-Palestinian morass, President Barack Obama might be biting off more than he can chew. With hardliners in power in Jerusalem, and Hamas in control of Gaza (and with the legitimacy of an electoral victory in its favor), it seems like a very bad time for making peace.
There is no secret about what an agreement might look like: a two-state solution on the basis of 1967 borders with modest and reciprocal territorial adjustments, plus a symbolic bow to the issue of the return of refugees. It is a solution most Palestinians would accept. Until recently, that was the case of Israelis as well, but the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu casts some doubt upon the matter. Netanyahu has not agreed to a two-state solution. It seems that the famous Israeli pretext, “there is no partner for peace,” now applies to the Palestinians as well. Hamas does not recognize Israel; Netanyahu does not recognize a future Palestine.
Barack Obama is committed to a two-state solution. But is he ready to play hardball with the Israelis to get it? U.S. electoral politics makes it extremely hazardous for American politicians to pressure the Israelis to do really difficult things.
And it will be difficult. First and foremost, a viable Palestinian state would require a massive dismantling of Israeli settlements, an action that would need, among other things, an enormous political will on the part of any Israeli government. Netanyahu’s and Likud Party have been the major (though not the sole) instigators of creating “facts on the ground,” namely settlements and infrastructure, that each day make a viable Palestinian state more improbable. Does the United States have the leverage to make them change course?
So what is the point behind Obama’s strategy? Perhaps he believes in a kind of “Nixon to China” scenario. Only a hardliner can take the tough decisions for peace. Yet it is nearly impossible to envision any arrangement that the present Israeli government would offer that could be accepted by the Palestinians. More likely, it seems Netanyahu will try to say pleasing things to the Americans while buying time under the guise of economic development in order to create even more facts on the ground.
The Gordian knot that makes this issue so difficult is not terrorism, hatred, or extremism, although these are important contributors to the problem. The main issue is more concrete: land, water, and borders.
In theory, the United States has enormous influence on Israel; in practice, it seldom if ever exercises it. A cool $3 billion in annual aid buys the U.S. the UN vote of Israel against Cuba on the embargo . . . and what else?
The settlers are a formidable bunch, no less that their backers in the Israeli parliament, who can bring down a government. And then there is always a Palestinian or Israeli extremist doing or saying something that can serve as a reason to destroy the hope of peace or scuttle the best peace agreement. Rest in peace, Yitzhak Rabin.
Obama is nevertheless right to engage the issue because the longer the Palestine-Israel conflict festers the more painful the outcome. For sure, he will be tougher on Israel than Bush. Who wouldn’t? But will he ultimately have the political backing in Congress and the political will to be tough enough? I hope so but there is reason to doubt it.
Are there any rays of hope? Yes. According to a Zogby poll just completed, 80 percent of Americans who voted for Obama think it is time to put pressure on Israel and 67 percent of all Americans think there should be a Palestine state. When Obama speaks to the Israeli, he speaks for the American people.
Perhaps there is also enough common sense among the Israeli political class, even hardliners, to realize that they are caught in a dilemma of their own making. Ruling over a stateless and disenfranchised people ad infinitum is hardly viable unless Israel wants to be a pariah state like Apartheid-era South Africa. Annexing the West Bank and Gaza would not only be illegal, it would be demographically suicidal for the future of Israel as a Jewish state. What is left except a two-state solution?
The rub is that even those Israeli leaders that have recognized this plain fact have been politically unwilling or unable to propose a fair distribution of the land such that would constitute a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and not an archipelago of overpopulated poverty-stricken Palestinian settlements in a sea of affluent Israeli suburbs.