Taking Yes for an Answer

Sometimes, it's hard to take "yes" for an answer.

Israel has had a host of American visitors in the last several days. Fred Hof from the Mitchell Team showed up last week before going on to Syria in attempts to conclude a peace agreement that would permanently quiet down Israel's northern border. Special Envoy George Mitchell then arrived to share with Israel how much normalization the Arab world is prepared to offer before peace in exchange for a settlement freeze, but with no breakthroughs on the Israeli side. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates then arrived to tell Israel that the US sees "eye to eye" on the threat of a nuclear armed Iran and to emphasize the US commitment to assuring Israel's security through engagement with Iran. He assured Israel that the US overture to Iran was not "open-ended." (It would be important for Israel to note that every overture in politics falls into that category, including the Arab Peace Initiative and US blank-check support.) National Security Adviser James Jones is arriving next to discuss overall strategic issues and we can expect a lot of hand-holding there too.

And yet, the Likud/Lieberman/Labor coalition seems to be perpetually unhappy with US efforts to assure a future of peace for Israel and her neighbors. Hof's visit was met by an attempt by an Israeli MK to propose a law that would require 80 MKs to approve any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Although the bill was delayed, expect it to be resurrected if peace looks more likely. Labor Party Leader Ehud Barak and Minister of Defense noted ruefully in a press conference with Gates that Israel "cannot dictate to anyone" concerning Israel's desire to keep the military option on Iran front and center, but continued to sound as if the failure of US efforts was a foregone conclusion. The Israeli press is still reporting leaks that the US is going to give in on allowing settlement activity to continue in specific circumstances. Israel's insistence on building in the Arab neighborhoods of Occupied East Jerusalem (which Israel considers annexed territory) may have been an attempt to raise the ante so that Israel could have something to give while demanding US acquiescence to building elsewhere.

On Iran and on ending the occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, the Israeli government is still behaving as if perpetual conflict is preferable to peace. For some Israeli politicians, it is better to stay on the offensive (and on your neighbor's lawn) than to ever rely on peace agreements. But this is based on the mistaken assumption that peace is synonymous with weakness. It is based on the mistaken notion that Israel has benefited more from conquest, occupation, and war than it has from peace. Measured in dunums (or acres) of land, that may be true for the time being -- but measured in human lives and their potential, it is decidedly a fallacy.

MJ Rosenberg has an excellent piece describing the domestic fallout of Israel's policies. He quotes Noah Efron of Bar Ilan University in Israel: "To be a secular Israeli in 2009 is a demoralizing and demoralized affair. We are tired: tired of the Palestinians, tired of the bombs, tired of UN and EU condemnations, tired of having so much of our daily wages taxed to buy guns and missiles, tired of the army reserves, tired of being hated, tired of waking up to reports of kids-- Jewish kids, Palestinian kids -- watching their parents die or dying in their parents' arms. We are tired of our lives and tired of ourselves."

My colleague at the New America Foundation, Steven Clemons, recently provided an apt analogy of what is at stake here. He writes that Netanyahu has become Obama's Khrushchev. I agree that Obama must be the one to define the terms of regional peace rather than allow Netanyahu, or for that matter, any other regional player, define it for the United States. Moreover, I believe that Netanyahu's policies, if he were allowed to succeed, would cement (literally and metaphorically) Israeli policy for another generation in the same dead-end street that ultimately has caused so many of the best of Israeli society to immigrate to multi-ethnic polities in the west.

This is a battle for US national interests in a part of the world of critical importance to the US, particularly in this new multi-partner world, as described by Secretary of State Clinton. She had it right when she said, "We will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world." Israel now needs its biggest friend in the world to "induce" it to take "yes" for an answer.