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A sailor throws a drowning man a life preserver. How dare you, screams the man. Because of you, people are going to think I can’t swim.That about sums up the relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a few months, the U.N. General Assembly will vote, probably overwhelmingly, to recognise a Palestinian state along Israel’s 1967 borders.
No one knows exactly what will happen after that, but from the Israeli government’s point of view, it won’t be good. According to international law, Israel will be occupying a sovereign nation. The result will likely be a bonanza of lawsuits, divestment campaigns and cancelled business deals. Israelis will feel more and more besieged. More and more of the country’s educated, tech-savvy young will realise you can get pretty good falafel in Menlo Park.
Last week, Obama threw Netanyahu a lifeline. He outlined the parameters that should guide Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: the 1967 border, plus land swaps. Obama’s strategy was clear: He promised to veto the Palestinians’ bid for statehood at the U.N. Security Council, but also hoped that by getting the Israeli government to endorse a contiguous Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, he could persuade the Palestinians to abandon their United Nations strategy in favour of a return to negotiations. And even if the Palestinians wouldn’t budge, Israel’s acceptance of Obama’s guidelines would make it easier to persuade European governments to oppose the Palestinians at the U.N.
Netanyahu’s response was, on its face, bizarre. The 1967 borders, he shot back, were “indefensible.” But Obama had not demanded a return to 1967 borders; he had very explicitly endorsed the 1967 borders with land swaps, which is essentially what Bill Clinton endorsed in late 2000 and Ehud Olmert endorsed in 2008. (In fact, Clinton and Olmert went further than Obama: Both endorsed a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and in different ways, signaled an openness to the return of small numbers of Palestinian refugees to Israel).
But that was only the beginning of the weirdness of Netanyahu’s response, because if Israel’s 1967 border is indefensible against conventional attack, land swaps of the sort that Clinton and Olmert envisaged actually make the problem worse. The settlement of Ariel, which Olmert hoped to swap for land inside Israel, juts like a bony finger 13 miles into the northern West Bank. According to the 2003 Geneva Initiative, keeping Maale Adumim, another large settlement for which Israel might swap land, requires a thin land bridge across a Palestinian state to Jerusalem.
How on earth would keeping these islands of Jewish settlement make Israel’s borders more defensible? To the contrary, if Israel ever did suffer a conventional attack from the West Bank, one of the first things it would do is evacuate places like Ariel and Maale Adumim, precisely because their location makes them, well, indefensible.
Over the course of his career, Benjamin Netanyahu has written a lot about what he considers “defensible borders” for Israel, and his definition has always included far more than just a few land swaps. Again and again, he has demanded an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, Israeli control of the hills overlooking key Palestinian cities and Israeli access to the major thoroughfares of the West Bank.
In other words, Netanyahu’s long career offers no indication that he would support a sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state along 1967 lines even with land swaps. What’s more, he has ruled out negotiating with any Palestinian government that includes Hamas, ruled out the return of even one Palestinian refugee, and demanded that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a “Jewish state,” something Ehud Barak never demanded in 2000. The result is that he has made it easy for the Palestinians to eschew negotiations and stick with their U.N. strategy. Obama threw him a lifeline and he has defiantly tossed it back.
It makes you wonder whether Netanyahu has any grasp of the world in which he is living.
Does he seriously believe that the Obama administration, having ignominiously failed to get Israel to accept negotiations based upon the 1967 lines, can strong-arm the Europeans into opposing a Palestinian state at the U.N.? Does he have any strategy for the “diplomatic tsunami”—in Ehud Barak’s words—that is about to hit?
He talks a lot about Palestinian violence, but he seems utterly flummoxed by Palestinian nonviolence. Yes, the Palestinians still produce rockets and suicide bombers. But in the Netanyahu era, their focus has moved decisively toward peaceful marches, boycotts and appeals to international law. They are playing on the world’s sympathy and the world’s impatience, and in that effort, this Israeli prime minister is the best friend they could have.
Over the last few days, Netanyahu has defied the president of the United States and forced him, once again, to retreat. He has won Washington. If only he realised that Washington is no longer the world.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.