By Andrew Wilson
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a cool reception from President Barack Obama during his trip to Washington last week, with the president flatly refusing to commit to U.S. military action against Iran. Meanwhile, a cease-fire is in effect after rockets rained down on Israel causing death and destruction, a gift of Islamic Jihad, Iran’s proxies in Gaza. Israel’s new Iron Dome anti-missile defense system is working fairly well, yet some rockets are still getting through—one that hit the center of Ashdod caused widespread panic. There is no doubt that Israel lives in a rough neighborhood, but Netanyahu's obstructionist policies regarding Palestine jeopardize the country's security and isolate it from the international community.
There is growing impatience among the Europeans who feel strongly about Palestine, and now they have the additional headache of a possible war with Iran that could disrupt their oil supply at a time when the economies of Europe are fragile. In sum, Israel’s policies are alienating its friends exactly when it sorely needs them.
Many Israelis believe they can go it alone. They bravely make a virtue of their Jewish exceptionalism, colored by their memories of the painful history of Jewish victimhood. They take pride in the fact that where once they were as sheep led to the slaughter, today with their strong military they are able to prevail over their enemies. Yet it is becoming ever harder to do so, as Israel’s enemies have become more sophisticated and better armed.
In the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the best Israel could attain was a standoff. Today even though the IDF has no doubt inflicted heavier casualties on the terrorists than it suffered from the rocket attacks, when the dust clears the Islamic Jihad will no doubt declare victory. According to a senior IDF intelligence officer, “Islamic Jihad was currently focused on saving face and creating a ‘victory image’ with which it will be able to claim that it defeated the IDF.” And Israel knows that it has not damaged its foe’s logistical capabilities, as the terrorists are obtaining longer range missiles that can potentially threaten even Tel Aviv.
We are saddened by the loss of life from this latest round of violence, and we deplore the actions of these extremist Palestinian groups in Gaza who by attacking Israel are only damaging their own cause. Yet this ugly violence will continue as long as the root cause of the problem is not addressed: the Palestinians’ natural right to a state of their own.
Netanyahu, who apparently remains a political captive to his right-wing settler coalition partners, did everything he could during his meetings with Obama to distract the world’s attention from the Palestinian problem and to bring Iran front and center. Apparently he succeeded, at least for a few days.
Yet shortly after he left Washington, Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, once again reminded the Americans that the absence of a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East, particularly as the Arab Awakening causes Arab governments to be more responsive to the sentiments of their populations.” He remarked on the importance of a peace agreement for American national interests: “A peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will foster stable public support among our partners in the region for American initiatives.” He added that an agreement would also hamper the efforts of extremist groups, referring to Iran and its proxies.
There is only so far that Netanyahu can go in placing partisan politics over the peace and security of Israel. The Israeli public is not stupid. The rockets from Gaza are a vivid demonstration that his policy of delaying any serious engagement with the Palestinian Authority is not improving Israel’s security. They will only go so far in pandering to the settlers, whose starry-eyed aspiration to colonize the whole of the West Bank is putting the entire nation at risk.
Granted, some Israelis still nurse wounds from the Second Intifada, in which Palestinian violence claimed over 1,100 Israeli lives between 2000 and 2004. Yet the memory of events a decade old does not justify causing pain to Palestinians in the present day, in the form of a cruel occupation. Israelis had better recognize that indulging these memories has become an excuse for inflicting pain. It blinds them to the fact that the Palestinians have demonstrably put aside the tactics of armed resistance in favor of peaceful and constructive state-building. They are asking to be treated as good neighbors. In this situation, when one’s opponent has already yielded, continuing to exact punishment for past sins becomes cruelty. It is only storing up resentment and creating the potential for violence that could come down on Israel’s heads with far greater ferocity than a few rockets.
Netanyahu in Washington invoked memories of the Holocaust in speaking of the need for military action against Iran. But the French could remind Israel of another lesson from that era that speaks to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians: The rise of the Nazis was a direct result of a similar self-righteous decision to punish a defeated enemy. In 1919 the French thought it justified to exact heavy reparations on a defeated Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. Yet those punitive measures finally broke Germany’s humanity and led to the rise of Hitler. Had the French treated the defeated Germans with greater respect, there would have been no Holocaust.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s behavior is increasing Israel’s isolation in the world community. He has only himself to blame for his frosty relationship with Obama, after his 2011 visit to Washington where he aligned himself with the Republicans in Congress and publicly upbraided the President. He began meddling in America’s domestic politics through his proxies in AIPAC, who by portraying the President as anti-Israel sought to split the solidly Democratic Jewish vote. This time Obama stood his ground, giving nothing of substance to Netanyahu even as his supporters stepped up to declare that no president has been a greater friend of Israel.
The representatives of the Quartet were having nothing to do with the Iranian issue. Naturally they had to deplore the rocket attacks from Gaza. After an informal meeting on March 12 at the United Nations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on “all sides” to restore calm. Yet their focus clearly remains on restarting bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In a statement, they affirmed their commitment to “a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict” and “welcomed the important effort led by Jordan, which began in early January, as part of the shared commitment to reach a negotiated agreement by the end of this year.”
The Europeans are growing ever more appalled with Netanyahu. The French and Italians have had enough of him. The Germans are currently waiting to see what Israel will do to satisfy the Quartet’s demands. The British are committed to peace, but they want to be even-handed, calling for both sides to produce movement. The UN Secretary General has come out in full force calling for a peace agreement, while the United States, caught in election-year paralysis, mouths the usual about justice and universal peace. The Obama administration may feel constrained by loud Jewish voices during this election season, but French Jews are more taciturn, and they are lovers of liberty. If Europe moves to secure freedom for the Palestinians, they are more likely to side with that cause.
The British are more serious about wanting to attain a result that brings true universal justice, but in front of America, the UK is weak-kneed. Nevertheless, they can draw strength from Obama’s new assertiveness last week in facing down Netanyahu. They can also read Peter Beinart’s forthcoming book, The Crisis of Zionism, which chastises Obama for his succumbing to Netanyahu’s bullying that caused him to abandon his 2010 Middle East initiative and betray his own ideals for peace. Now it is America that is in a position of weakness politically and morally, and Great Britain can support a European initiative. Obama, despite his brave words to AIPAC that he would oppose sanctions, will not object to European action; in fact he will root for Europe from the sidelines.
The leaders of Europe are beginning to understand that it is in their national interest to take muscular actions to require Israel to comply with the terms of the Quartet. Since public chastisement has not worked, we expect they will shortly be consulting on a concerted move to impose economic sanctions. Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner; hence its economic measures can be effective in modifying Netanyahu’s behavior.
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org ), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
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