In my previous post on this topic, I concluded with a warning that, if the UN recognizes Palestinian statehood, it needs to make this recognition contingent on Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist—saying, in effect, that the 1948 War of Independence has been over for six decades. Such a condition would require the UN to provide at least a rough guideline for the division of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank into two distinct political entities, or else either side could claim that they recognize the other, in accordance with the UN declaration—just not here.
The possibility of a unilaterally imposed UN division of the territory will be looked on by many (Israelis and Americans; Jews and non-Jews) as disastrous. While I agree that this could be the case, it is not the only possible outcome. Though the three entities involved—the UN, the Palestinian Authority, and the Israeli government—always necessitate skepticism, a September UN vote could result in the peaceable creation of separate states.
This would require Netanyahu to behave differently than we have been led to expect—and for him to perceive the threat of de-legitimization following UN recognition of a Palestinian state as being, more than anything else, something which Israel controls as it shapes its response. There is some evidence to suggest that this may be the case.
Yesterday, Netanyahu delivered an address to the Knesset, seen by many as a prelude to his coming meeting with President Obama. While his language may have been hawkish, his proposal, as Jeffrey Tobin noted earlier today, would require redefining that word before we can apply it: a division based, roughly, on the 1967 borders and a willingness to engage in land-for-peace swaps. While his ambiguous references to an “undivided Jerusalem” and retaining major “settlement blocs” in the West Bank do smack of an attempt to continue to border-shifting of recent years as settlements continue to expand, Netanyahu is now moving, steadily, toward the positions enumerated by his predecessors. (And, keep in mind, he has a coalition to hold together.) Furthermore, Ehud Barak, who was prevented from achieving a peace deal a decade ago primarily by Arafat’s insincerity, appears to be a growing influence on Netanyahu’s policies.
This is, in itself, movement in a good direction from Israel’s government—though an offer somewhere to the right of Olmert’s is far from perfect. But the moment at which this change is occurring is either puzzling or revealing. The odds of a negotiated peace agreement happening in the next six months are, with the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, all but none; the odds of a UN vote are significant; and, to top things off, George Mitchell has just stepped down as the US peace envoy.
So why now, at the moment when peace negotiations, for at least six months, will likely be unproductive as both sides wait? If Netanyahu is offering this as an attempt to achieve a negotiated peace, then it remains puzzling. But if this is part of a gambit to influence and shape an imposed peace… After all, if the UN is going to attempt to declare a peace agreement of its own, and force it upon both parties, and if there is a significant possibility that the United States will at least tacitly accept this imposition, then the smartest action would be to attempt to manage this process and ensure an imposition that is acceptable to Israel—even if not ideal, or acceptable at all to the hard-right, or Bibi’s heart of hearts.
It is possible, then, that Netanyahu’s speech signaled the beginning of a new phase of his administration, and of the peace process itself, in which Israel has accepted that the UN will recognize Palestinian statehood in September and, therefore, begins to push (through the United States?) for a UN vote that would create a Palestinian state, roughly along the 1967 lines, but making allotments for settlement blocs and/or land swaps, while requiring that it publicly and openly accept Israel’s right to exist. That is, a vote that Israel’s “moderate”* parties—Labor, Kadima, Likud, and Ehud Barak’s Ego Trip Express—could come together to accept, rather than risk genuinely undermining Israel’s international legitimacy. This scenario would require Netanyahu’s proposal to sit to the right of Olmert’s for at least two reasons: so that any “compromise” does not land too far in favor of the Palestinians at the expense of Israel, and to hold, for the time being, Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition together.
Should this happen, Kadima and Labor would have no choice but to support Netanyahu’s government, lest they find Likud out-flanking them to right and left simultaneously—or, worse, be revealed as politicians more than patriots. Israel’s politicians are no better than any other country’s, but I doubt Livni and what remains of Labour would risk scuttling a two-state solution, and Israel itself, over petty partisanship. Israel has many problems; a lack of patriotism is not one of them. The incorporation of Kadima and old Labour into the government would be necessary—because the right flank of Netanyahu’s coalition would disintegrate instantly, no matter how much of a “dove masquerading as a hawk” their Prime Minister may play between now and then. Rather than suing for peace now, which would expose his coalition to attack from the left and right alike, and condemn it to collapse, perhaps he is waiting for a situation in which his hand is forced—in which he makes necessary but unpopular concessions because of a genuine, concrete threat to Israel’s legitimate standing. While the Israeli populace would not be pleased—even the doves—at a UN-imposed settlement, we should remember the majority of Israelis are not part of the Yisrael Beiteinu or hard-right religious Zionist settlement movements.
This could all just be wishful thinking on my part, and the next few weeks alone will provide plenty of opportunity to make me look hopelessly naïve. But of this much I am certain: Netanyahu’s shift on the peace process is part of a political strategy with a larger end in mind than merely making President Obama happier. Regardless of what this end is, if there is a UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu is the only person in Israel capable of pivoting that into a manageable peace agreement. I think he’s smart enough to recognize this, and I hope he’s sane enough—or egotistical enough; I’ll take either—to capitalize on it.
*Yes, compared with Yisrael Beiteinu and, especially, everything to the right of that party, Likud counts as “moderately” right-wing. Especially after Bibi’s latest speech.