A recent article in Foreign Affairs by Brookings fellow Natan Sachs is getting a lot of attention: Why Israel waits: Anti-Solutionism as a strategy. (Full disclosure: Sachs is a friend and someone for whom I have great professional respect.)
The piece offers some valuable insights into how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those around him justify their approach on national security issues. However, the analysis suffers from an important omission with respect to the Israeli government's approach to the Palestinians, and offers a policy recommendation that, if adopted, would be disastrous. First, the omission: Sachs' central thesis is that Israeli leaders' lack of enthusiasm for pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace in recent years (he focuses on Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yaalon, and cabinet minister Bennett) derives from their conviction that no peace agreement is possible right now, and that Israel should wait until conditions are riper (if they ever are) to pursue one. Sachs dubs this approach, "strategic conservatism" and "anti-solutionism." But while "anti-solutionism" and "strategic conservatism" can explain why Netanyahu et al aren't pursuing peace at the moment, they cannot explain why these same Israeli leaders have consistently pursued policies that appear calculated to ensure that riper conditions never emerge and that no solution will ever be possible. The policies of every Netanyahu government, including back in the 1990s, have been defined - sometimes in so many words, sometimes merely in effect - by a pro-settlements, pro-"Greater Israel" ideology and agenda, designed to cement Israel's hold on East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank, prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state and undermine any credible Palestinian leadership. These policies disclose an approach that, at its core, is not "anti-solutionist" but "anti-solution." And Israeli leaders frequently say as much. Second, Sachs recommends that the Obama Administration adopt a policy shift regarding settlements:
"Washington should develop a policy that distinguishes between settlements that seriously degrade the possibility of a future partition and those that do not. It should vigorously object to construction in the former--particularly in and around East Jerusalem, where settlement construction prejudices the outcome of a future agreement the most--and tacitly accept it in the latter. And the United States should push for a more stringent definition of the boundaries of Israel's more benign settlement blocs, based on limits developed in U.S. mediation efforts in recent years rather than on Israeli interpretation. Although such an approach would be difficult for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to accept, it would offer each a tangible political gain: tacitly legitimized construction in limited areas for the Israelis and an effective freeze on construction in zones that actually count in the long term for the Palestinians."
To be clear: what Sachs is suggesting here is that the Obama Administration scrap the fundamental precept upon which all Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are based: the acceptance of the 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiations and for future borders. He is advocating that Obama replace this precept with a new principle that rewards decades of Israeli defiance of U.S. policy and international law and legitimizes Israel's annexation of land through illegal settlements. In making this recommendation, Sachs is following in the footsteps of Dennis Ross and others who have previously urged the Obama Administration to adopt what boils down to the Netanyahu approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This is an approach that seeks to impose a new framework on peace efforts based not on international law, nor on international consensus, nor on agreements previously adopted by the parties, but instead on Israeli faits accomplis - facts on the ground established by Israel starting in 1967 and continuing through the present day. Such a shift in U.S. policy would almost certainly mark the end of the peace effort that began more than two decades ago in Madrid - an effort that sought to make good on the historic promise of trading land for peace. It would thus, indeed, offer "tangible political gain" to Netanyahu and his pro-settlement cohorts, who reject a negotiated two-state outcome based on the 1967 lines. It would likewise be a boon to one-staters of all stripes, including hard-line Palestinians, post-Zionist Israelis, and the BDS movement, who would join Israeli hardliners in celebrating the end of the land-for-peace, two-state era. In contrast, Sachs' suggestion that this policy shift would offer "tangible political gain" to the Palestinians - by resulting in "an effective freeze on construction in zones that actually count in the long term for Palestinians" - makes sense only if one believes that the U.S. can dictate to the Palestinians what does and doesn't count for them. This patronizing belief is at odds with the fundamental realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and thinking along these same lines has continually compromised the ability of U.S. negotiators to understand the Palestinians and to act as effective, honest brokers for peace.
American negotiators have consistently failed to grasp the core Palestinian conviction about Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts: i.e., that the Palestinians made their major concession for peace more than twenty years ago, when they agreed - not without controversy and objections - to talks based on the 1967 lines, giving up claims to the 78% of historic Palestine that is now sovereign Israeli. A decision by the U.S. to impose a new basis for peace negotiations - tossing out the 1967 lines and legitimizing Israeli de facto annexation of land through settlements - would deprive already weakened pro-diplomacy, anti-armed-struggle Palestinian leaders of their last shred of legitimacy. It would almost certainly be the final blow to already enfeebled peace efforts and would set the stage for even greater violence than we are seeing today.
Adopting such an approach would likewise offer the opposite of "tangible political gain" for the Obama Administration. It would put the U.S. into direct conflict the virtually entire world over settlements. It would mark Obama as the president on whose watch Greater Israel ideologues were given free rein to run roughshod not only over Israel's own best interests, but over the interests and credibility of the United States. And it would position Obama as the president who left Israel-Palestine peace efforts in shambles. Elsewhere in his article, Sachs suggests that Netanyahu's default position across the board has been "conflict management." While true in some respects, the fact is that Netanyahu has actively courted conflict in the service of the pro-settlements, pro-Greater Israel agenda - like when he approved Har Homa in 1997, or in recent years as new settlement construction spiked to the highest levels since 2000, illegal settler construction was "legalized" to create new settlements, and Israel carried out West Bank land seizures on a scope unseen since the 1980s. Indeed, Netanyahu has seemed to revel in ever-greater conflict - with the Palestinians, the U.S., and the international community. This, again, is evidence not of "strategic conservatism" and "anti-solutionism." Rather, it reveals a clear agenda, the goal of which is to ensure that the one solution that can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the imperfect but widely accepted two-state solution based on the 1967 lines - is never achieved.