If the purpose of President Barack Obama's visit to Israel was to dispel the view held by most Israelis, and by rightwing American Jewish supporters of AIPAC and the Likud's annexationist policies, that he is hostile to Israel and to the Zionist enterprise, it must be judged a brilliant success. Not everyone was converted, but his words and personal charm seemed to have worked wonders on most Israelis.
While his visit was not expected to revive prospects for a two-state solution, he spoke far more directly and energetically about the need for an end to Israel's occupation and about his own continuing efforts to help the parties achieve an agreement than his recent disengagement from the peace process prepared anyone for. But nothing he said in Jerusalem or Ramallah--and, more importantly, that he failed to say--justifies an expectation that his reengagement will be of a kind that has any chance of preventing Benjamin Netanyahu's new government from finally nailing down the coffin in which they are burying a viable two-state outcome.
For no matter how much he was pressed--by reporters and others--Obama could not get himself to affirm the main point of his speech of May 19th, 2011 at the Department of State that peace talks must begin at the 1967 border. It is one thing to say, as he did at his press conference in Ramallah, that once the parties agree on a border, Israeli settlements on the Palestinian side of the border will have to be removed, so why waste time arguing about them now. It is a valid point if, as the Roadmap to Middle East Peace of 2003 that was signed by Israel clearly provides, the negotiations begin at the 1967 line, and changes to that border are made only by agreement between the parties.
But Netanyahu has explicitly rejected that Road Map provision. Even before Obama left Jerusalem, Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, declared that the President's visit had not changed Netanyahu's position. "It cannot just be that one side makes demands and the other side makes concessions," he said. Obama's assurance to President Mahmoud Abbas that all settlements east of such an new border would have to be removed is therefore a hollow one if Netanyahu can decide on his own from which point within the Palestinian territories in the West Bank the negotiations begin.
It is important to understand that Netanyahu's unilateral abrogation of so central a provision of the Roadmap is based on his bizarre determination to present the West Bank as "disputed" territory, not occupied territory. That is why he has been so insistent on the eradication of the 1967 line, even to the point of calling President Obama moments before his speech of May 19th, 2011 to demand that he omit any reference to the 1967 border from his speech. And that, too, is why he recently appointed a commission of rightwing judges who share his view to help determine the government's position on this question. Which they did, and confirmed that the West Bank is indeed disputed territory to which Israel has as much a claim as Palestinians do. Abbas' return to negotiations without a clear understanding that changes in the 1967 line require Palestinian agreement would imply his relinquishment of the Palestinian right to statehood.
In both Jerusalem and Ramallah President Obama called for the abandonment of old formulas that haven't worked and for new out-of-the-box ideas that can yield a two-state accord. But there is no formula in the world that can do this if resumed talks are premised on the principle that the West Bank is contested territory. It should come as no surprise that the response to Obama's speech to young Israelis in Jerusalem by one of the most influential new ministers in Israel's new government, Naftali Bennett, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi party that opposes a Palestinian state anywhere in the West Bank, was there can be no occupation "in our own land." This not empty talk, for Netanyahu turned over to Bennett and his party key positions in virtually every ministry and Knesset committee that determines the continued growth of settlements and confiscations of Palestinian land in the West Bank.
Obama's failure to address these well-known Israeli positions tells us how seriously to take his attempts to establish his evenhandedness in this conflict. In both Jerusalem and Ramallah, he ruled out recognition of Hamas and its participation in a Palestinian unity government as long as it refuses to recognize Israel's legitimacy. He also expects them to renounce resort to violence. Now that Bennett has informed Obama that he mirrors precisely Hamas' positions in his own view of Palestinian claims--denying Palestinian rights to a state anywhere in Palestine and justifying the use of IDF violence in the implementation of that denial (it certainly will not be self-implementing)--will Obama apply the same standard to Netanyahu's government that he applies to the Palestinians?
What hope there still exists for a two-state outcome--and even the wildest optimist would concede its remoteness--now rests with Secretary of State John Kerry's conviction that a failure to prevent the disappearance of a two-state accord will have profoundly adverse consequences not only for Israel and for the region but for key U.S. national interests as well. He is right in this, and one must therefore hope he will persevere in his determination to achieve a breakthrough with both Israelis and Palestinians.
However Kerry will go about seeking to persuade the parties to return to meaningful negotiations, his efforts have no chance of success if he does not base his diplomacy on the following realities:
While both Israelis and Palestinians are guilty of behavior and policies that, in the cowardly and insipid formulation so often used by the U.S. and the EU, "do not help advance the peace process," Israeli and Palestinian prudential and political failures are not what has prevented a two-state accord. What has prevented it is the policy of Israeli governments headed by Netanyahu (this is his third), as well as of many previous governments, to prevent Palestinian statehood at all costs by enlarging the settlement project to the point where Israel's control of the entire West Bank achieves irreversibility.
Unless Kerry's strategy for achieving a two-state agreement is absolutely clear-eyed about this reality, he will get nowhere. Its dishonest denial by the U.S. and by other Western countries is the reason the Oslo Accords yielded nothing but a deepening of the occupation it was supposed to end.
Kerry must finally abandon the absurd assumption of former U.S. policymakers of the Dennis Ross era that permanent status issues cannot be addressed before certain confidence-building measures take root. That is unvarnished nonsense.
The only confidence that Netanyahu and his various governments have sought is in America's acquiescence in their planned disenfranchisement and displacement of the Palestinian people. What they need to hear from Secretary Kerry following President Obama's blanket promise of U.S. solidarity is that such acquiescence is inconceivable. If, as Obama himself indicated, Israel's present course may lead to the loss of its democracy and to apartheid, would not the foundation of America's "unbreakable" relationship with Israel, our shared values, have been shattered?
The only confidence that Palestinians seek is in a credible Israeli acceptance of the pre-1967 border as the starting point of peace talks. What they need to hear from Secretary Kerry is unwavering American support for this demand. He should also tell them that if Fatah and Hamas will not end their shameful competition for narrow political advantage and join in a common non-violent struggle for an end to Israel's colonial project in the West Bank, America's support will be to no avail.
The U.S. must explicitly reject Netanyahu's claim that Palestinian insistence on a viable and sovereign state in the West Bank alongside the State of Israel is in itself evidence that they are not prepared to match the "painful compromises" that Israel is prepared to make. It is a shameful accusation that is based on the Likud's ridiculous notion that the West Bank is disputed territory.
In fact, neither Netanyahu nor any previous Israeli prime minister has ever offered any concessions to the Palestinians, painful or otherwise, on the Israeli side of the 1967 border. Without exception, their position on every permanent status issue --whether territory, refugees, Jerusalem, water resources or security--is that Palestinians must make the concessions on their side of that border. Abbas never demanded any Israeli concessions. He has never asked that Israel allow a Palestinian settlement on Israel's side of the 1967 border, or water from Israel's aquifers, or for any Israeli demilitarization. Beginning negotiations at the 1967 border, removing illegal settlements, halting the construction of new ones and ending the occupation are not Israeli concessions or Palestinian conditions but Israeli obligations under international law and Security Council resolutions that Israel accepted.
John Kerry must bear in mind that the only painful compromise that was ever made by either party was Arafat's decision not to seek the return of Palestinian territory that was lost to Israel in the war of 1948 when Arab armies invaded the newborn state. It was not an apologist for the Palestinians but Shimon Peres, Israel's president, who when recently challenged to defend his claims for the importance of the Oslo Accords (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) said the following: "Before Oslo, the Palestinian state's size should have been according to the 1947 ... UN map [about 44 percent of Palestine]. In Oslo, Arafat moved from the 1947 map to the 1967 one. He gave up on 22 percent of the West Bank. I don't know any Arab leader [does he know an Israeli leader?] who would give up 2 or 3 percent. He gave up 22 percent."
Peres was mistaken. Arafat did not give up 22 percent of the West Bank but much more: 22 percent of Palestine--fully 50 percent of the territories recognized in the UN Partition Resolution of 1947 as the legitimate patrimony of the Palestinian people. And instead of acknowledging that this concession was a gut-wrenching one-sided Palestinian contribution to peace, Peres described it as "our [i.e., Peres's] greatest achievement."
Netanyahu and his supporters will of course argue that withdrawing from any part of the West Bank is a painful Israeli concession that deserves Palestinian reciprocity, i.e., granting Israel the right to hold on to the rest of the stolen parts of the West Bank. That is a novel principle that will be welcomed by criminal enterprises everywhere. And theft, or more precisely robbery, is exactly what the settlement project is. For if the UN's Partition Resolution of 1947 lost its legal standing when Arab countries rejected it, as Likud ideologues claim, then the State of Israel, whose Declaration of Independence cites the UN Partition Plan as the source of its legitimacy, is also left without international legitimacy.
I do not propose that Secretary of State Kerry engage Netanyahu and his government in tired polemics. But any new U.S. effort that leaves Israeli interlocutors believing that America still has not caught on to their annexationist goals and remains prepared to provide American cover for these goals can only end in disastrous failure. America should act as the true friend of Israel it has not been. It should finally tell it the truth.