An Impasse With Washington

The Americans have decided on exactly the conditions Israel has to meet to bring Abbas to the negotiating table.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on March 31, 2010.)

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was leaving Washington, after undergoing a series of what seemed like deliberate humiliations by the White House, he said he had found the golden middle way between U.S. President Barack Obama’s demands and Israel’s positions. But he will quickly find out that there is no middle way – Obama wants to go all the way. He may be prepared to nibble away at Israel’s positions one nibble at a time, but he knows exactly where he wants to go.

It all started with Obama’s speech in Cairo last June. Pulling no punches, and for the first time since 1957 during the Eisenhower administration, the president raised in public a difference of opinion between the United States and Israel that had existed for many years but had in the past been relegated to discreet discussions between officials of the two governments. Israel would have to stop building settlements in the West Bank, he told the audience at Cairo University. You did not have to be very smart to know that when he said West Bank he did not mean only Judea and Samaria, but rather anything that was located beyond the 1949 armistice lines (the Green Line). And that also included the areas of Jerusalem beyond the Green Line.

Rather than stating clearly that this demand contradicted Israel’s basic rights and therefore could not be met, the Israeli government adopted a tactic of making partial accommodations to Obama’s demands and stalling for time. First came Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University agreeing, with some reservations, to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Then came the government’s decision to freeze construction in the settlements in Judea and Samaria for 10 months. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Israel for this unprecedented decision – and it really was unprecedented – the Israeli government thought it had appeased Washington’s demands, when in reality it was being told by Washington: “So far so good, but you still have a long way to go.”

Vice President Joe Biden’s arrival in Israel, on what was trumpeted as a goodwill visit, became an opportunity to turn the decision by a low-grade civil servant on the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee into an “insult” to the United States of America. The prime minister and government spokesmen took this farce seriously and apologized over and over. It was an unfortunate mistake in “timing” they said, not realizing that the United States objected not to the timing but to any construction in areas of Jerusalem beyond the Green Line.

To make things crystal clear to this slow learner came the humiliations during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and the insistent demands made of him. Make no mistake about it, the Americans have decided on exactly the conditions Israel has to meet to bring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table and do not intend to compromise on them.

As a matter of fact, having already communicated these conditions to Abbas, they cannot now move away from them. It should be clear that the Americans also have some very definite ideas on what the final Israeli-Palestinian agreement should look like, and they plan on making Israel sign such an agreement within the next two years. They will not listen to experienced voices saying that this is no way to bring peace to the region.

When officials in the Obama administration are not using strong-arm tactics, they are appealing to the good sense of the Israeli public and the prime minister. The status quo is unsustainable, they say. This simple phrase in incorrect Latin (Menachem Begin, who knew Latin, used to insist that one should say status quo ante, not status quo) seems to have an overpowering effect on audiences. It was used by Biden in his speech at Tel Aviv University, to loud applause, and by Clinton at the AIPAC conference, to somewhat more subdued applause. Even a member of the Netanyahu government has repeated it on occasion.

It is the equivalent of saying “Do something! Do anything! Anything would be better than the current situation.” Now that, Israelis well know, is not true. The current situation is far from perfect, like just about everything in the Middle East. But when it is suggested that nothing could be worse, Israelis, who have unfortunately seen worse, and even much worse, find it hard to accept. What Washington is now trying to push down Israel’s throat may lead to much worse.

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