September's coming tsunami
While Netanyahu appears to be gambling on Obama, the US president shows few signs of siding with the Palestinians against Israel. Nonetheless, the present stalemate cannot last, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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Israeli leaders, in the first place Netanyahu and Barak, have convinced their American colleagues, in the first place Obama, that Abbas's intention to declare a Palestinian state is a no-go
"The effect of the tsunami in Japan will seem negligible compared to the political tsunami that will hit us in September, once the UN recognises the Palestinian state," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told journalists at the end of last week. "This is a very dangerous step in a series to strip our legitimacy." According to Barak, the only way out is for Israel to quickly propose a political initiative to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
He argued that world recognition of a Palestinian state would greatly curtail Israel's ability to manoeuvre and compound the US administration's embarrassment. Barak did not mask his fear that Israel would become a burden on the US, but he avoided a direct response to a question that journalists repeatedly asked: What can Israel offer the Palestinians, which does not undermine Netanyahu's government, to convince them to return to negotiations?
To the contrary, Barak's boss, Binyamin Netanyahu, appears confident despite criticism by Obama and his aides behind closed doors regarding the Israeli prime minister's policies. He believes that the US administration will work intensely to convince the largest number of countries not to support the Palestinian move at the UN. Those in Netanyahu's circle believe that all Obama is currently concerned about is being re-elected for a second term, and hence he is especially keen to placate the leaders of Jewish groups in the US by assisting Israel to weather "the promised tsunami".
These sources point out some indicators that prove that Obama's administration will, in the end, choose to side with Israel, including pressure by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table. On Sunday, Israel Radio quoted one of Netanyahu's advisers saying that the US administration is interested in bringing the Palestinian Authority (PA) back to the negotiating table, in order to show the world that negotiations are a good route and any unilateral steps should not be supported -- such as lobbying the UN General Assembly to recognise Palestinian statehood.
Members of Netanyahu's circle belittle reports in some Israeli newspapers confirming that Obama intends to instruct the US representative to the UN to vote for the resolution recognising the Palestinian state, or at least abstain from voting. Despite various conjectures about the official US position, Netanyahu and his aides know the possible dangers of a UN resolution recognising a Palestinian state.
Many Israeli political and strategic research centres presented Netanyahu with the dangers that await Israel once Palestinian statehood is established. First and foremost, Israel will be further isolated on the world stage, as well as the threat of unprecedented economic sanctions against the Zionist entity. There is also the possibility that Israeli military and civilian presence in the West Bank would be viewed as "a violation of international law".
Netanyahu has a very slim margin of manoeuvre. He seems unable to give the US administration any concession to enable it to convince the Palestinian leadership to return to negotiations and postpone going to the UN for statehood. Most ministers in Netanyahu's cabinet strongly oppose any negotiation compromise that contradicts the traditional position of the Israeli right wing regarding a settlement. At the same time, the majority of Knesset members from the ruling Likud Party made it clear that they would not accept any position that contradicts party positions declared on the eve of the last elections.
Netanyahu has considered redeploying the army in the West Bank, whereby military presence would be eliminated in some Palestinian towns. The step could be viewed as "a goodwill initiative" towards the PA, but the leaders of settlers and the lobby that sympathises with them in the government and Knesset immediately told Netanyahu that he should not risk such a proposal if he wants to keep his coalition government intact. It seems that Netanyahu chose to keep his cabinet together over pacifying Obama's administration.
Because of this reality and uncertainty about Obama's intentions, Netanyahu only has one option left, namely to launch a publicity and political campaign to convince European states, especially, not to support Palestinian statehood. He believes that the Palestinian move is only viable because European countries have joined the ranks of those willing to recognise the Palestinian state, and these are the countries that could harm Israel economically and politically. There are also concerns that the EU might terminate Israel's membership in international economic organisations, and approve decisions to freeze all benefits that the EU granted Tel Aviv over the past two decades. This would be a serious blow to Israel. There are no guarantees that Netanyahu will succeed in his endeavour, but this seems to be the most viable option left for him in comparison to other choices.
Akiva Eldar, senior commentator at Haaretz newspaper, argued that the only option for Israel before the "September tsunami" is an immediate decision to evacuate tens of under- populated settlements in the West Bank, and to launch talks with the PA about the remaining areas in the West Bank. Eldar believes that such a step would not only result in the Palestinians scrapping their plan to go to the General Assembly, but would restore Israel's margin of military and political manoeuvrability in dealing with rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. At the same time, it would undermine the popular support of Hamas amongst Palestinians.
Eldar further asserted that disbanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank should become a priority because of the "security and political damage caused by Israel's colonialist policies; Israeli society is paying a high economic price for this policy," he stated.
Eitan Haber, the former media adviser to the Israeli prime minister and a prominent columnist at Yediot Aharonot newspaper, asserted that Israel is firmly heading towards the place previously occupied by South Africa under the apartheid regime. Haber does not understand why members of Netanyahu's circle are so confident about Obama's intentions, and believes that Washington's recognition of a Palestinian state does not undermine the chances of the first black US president being re-elected for a second term.
Haber predicted that Obama would be more hostile towards Israel in his second term because the US president views the Palestinians as "weak and persecuted by arrogant white people, who betrayed him and his family". He believes that difficult days lie ahead for Israel and mocks those who think that all will be well. He quoted a statement by former South Africa prime minister F W de Klerk to an Israeli official he met a few years ago: "Pray that you do not become like South Africa, because if that happens you would cease to exist."
Former rightwing Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Arens asserted that the dangers awaiting Israel after September are exaggerated. In an article published in Haaretz, Arens argued that any UN resolution recognising the Palestinian state would not change UN Resolution 3379, which at the time considered "Zionism a type of racism". "If such a resolution is passed, it will be another reminder of the UN's impotence and inability to resolve international conflicts," he wrote. "The US administration certainly knows this." Arens noted that Israel could not be blamed for the freeze in negotiations with the Palestinians since Abbas does not represent the Palestinians, 'and therefore it is unwise to talk with him".
The fierce debate inside Israel indicates the uncertainty of decision-makers in Tel Aviv. It also proves that Netanyahu's government is essentially gambling on the position of the Obama administration. The record of this administration in handling negotiations has proven that, despite pessimism by some observers in Israel, Obama will once again surprise all and help Netanyahu out of a political predicament. Obama has demonstrated that although his tone may be critical of Netanyahu's policies, he also works to block penalties against Israel for its policies, which provoke the region and the world.
The only way to push Israel to the same position of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which it certainly deserves, is if Arab, Muslim and world countries take a firm position and refuse to accept Israel's policies which scorn the world community.