Thus ended the crisis in relations between Israel and the United States, which had started when Israel’s government announced its decision to build another 1600 housing units for settlers in East Jerusalem just as it was receiving the visit of the Vice President of the United States, on the eve of US-brokered “proximity talks” with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, meant as a prelude to renewing full-scale negotiations for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, known also as Abu Mazen, had earlier maintained that negotiations were pointless while the Israeli settlement drive was continuing to consume, to gobble up, the Palestinian territory, in violation of international law and U.N. Security Council Resolutions. He had called on the US to stand by its own position, which Israel should finally cease and desist from its settlement activity. President Obama had announced that position forcefully in his speech, from Cairo, to the Arab and Muslim world last June. However a couple of months later the Administration was already backtracking and hailing Israel’s largely fictitious ten month “settlement freeze” as sufficient. On the basis of that temporary and mostly unreal “freeze”, the Administration had leaned on President Abu Mazen to agree to “indirect negotiations”, mediated by former US Senator George Mitchell. However, the announcement of a massive new settlement initiative just as Vice President Biden was in Israel to celebrate this diplomatic achievement made a mockery of it all.
At first, the White House and the State Department went on a full-scale offensive of condemnation of the Israeli initiative. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton explicitly demanded of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu that the decision on this new settlement drive in East Jerusalem be rescinded, as a condition for being forgiven for this insult to the President and his Administration. However, just as had happened subsequent to the June speech, American resolve soon gave way. Prime Minister Netanyahu had done no more than apologise for the “timing” of the announcement to coincide with the Vice President’s visit, but repeatedly stood his ground and publicly declared that settlement building in East Jerusalem will continue unabated. He told this to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, last week, and confirmed it to the cabinet on Sunday. In addition, he got praise from Secretary of State Clinton, and reputedly an invitation to meet President Obama as well.
Indeed, the Prime Minister had, throughout, chided those Israelis who expressed fear that his angering of the US was damaging Israel’s supreme national security interest in maintaining close friendship and cooperation with America. A veteran of such verbal confrontations from his earlier term as Prime Minister (1996-1999) and an assiduous student of decades of Israel-US relations, he was confident that this “crisis” too was going to end just as it has now in fact ended. To paraphrase a famous characterisation by the late President John Kennedy of his Cuban missile crisis confrontation with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev: Netanyahu and Obama looked at each other eyeball-to-eyeball, and Obama blinked first, again.
Goodbye Palestinian state
It is not yet possible to foresee all the consequences of this renewed retreat of the US from its categorical demand of an end to Israel’s settlement drive. In addition to hurting the credibility of the United States in the Middle East, and possibly elsewhere too, its ongoing effects may tragically weaken the confidence of the Palestinian population—under Israeli occupation since 1967—in the possibility of achieving their freedom by peaceful means.
Indeed, for Palestinians, but not only for them, continuing Israeli settlement activity in occupied areas parallel to negotiations, risks being interpreted as a statement of intention never to withdraw from the occupied territories, never to allow the Palestinians freedom. Otherwise, what sense would there be for Israel to continue to invest untold billions in moving its settlers into territory, from which it will have to withdraw them upon achieving the peace treaty with Palestine?
President Abu Mazen and the PLO, which goes by the name of the “Palestinian National Authority” in its separate role of administering the smaller part of the West Bank, where a circumscribed measure of autonomous Palestinians government exists – may be too weak to resist the strong international pressure to participate in some form of negotiations parallel with the Israeli settlement drive. The “Palestinian National Authority” (to which Israel does not even allow the adjective “national”) is too heavily invested in the status quo.
It is heavily dependent on international aid (which paradoxically really helps Israel, which such aid relieves of the financial burden of providing for the services to the civilian population in the relevant territory), and its small political, social and economic élite can even flourish under present conditions. But extremist armed organizations, notably Hamas, are gearing up to exploit the foreseeable explosion of frustration, on the part of a population of some two million, for whom the continuing lack of realistic hope for peace with freedom may be very hard to bear. For ordinary people in Palestine, who are not part of the tiny ruling élite, living under occupation, without civil rights, is not an abstraction.
In East Jerusalem, for example, tens of thousands of Palestinian homes are considered “illegal” by the occupying power and could be demolished at any time. There too, in the Sheikh Jarah middle class neighbourhood, whole families have literally been thrown out into the street, and their homes given over to settlers. That this has been happening right next to the foreign Consulates, next to the homes of the Western diplomatic representatives, has only made more intense the despair being felt by the people now taking shelter under tents, in the street, just outside their own homes – and, by extension, by the entire population of which they are part.
Third intifada or Bantustan?
Will all of this lead now to a “Third Intifada”, to yet another “Uprising”, either a popular one, as in late 1987 and the following three or four years, or a murderously violent one, as in 2000 and the following four or five years? While there were some possible signs of that in the last ten days or so, it is hard to tell.
Israel’s government clearly hopes that close cooperation with the armed agencies of the “Palestinian National Authority”, and the personal interest of its officials and the Palestinian élite in keeping the peace, as well as the memories among Palestinians of the uncompromising crushing of the earlier Intifadas, will be enough to avoid at least any large-scale or far-reaching “Uprising”.
The government probably hopes to be able to pursue indefinitely its apparent long-range policy of dividing the West Bank into densely populated, mostly urban, landless, enclaves of Palestinians, surrounded and divided by both the military and – much more – Israeli settlements. In addition, with this being the situation on the ground, Israel will have no objection to the ensemble of these Palestinian enclaves being called “a State”. Indeed calling it a State will have the advantage of not having to confront the issue of giving those Palestinians civil rights in Israel.
Left-wing critics in Israel have long spoken in this connection of “Bantustans”.
However, whatever is going to happen, or not happen, on the ground in terms of violence, unleashed or avoided, some Palestinians are beginning to warn Israel explicitly that this is not an acceptable scenario. That, if the continuing settlement drive makes a genuine Palestinian State impossible, Palestinians will instead clamour for civil rights in a unitary State with present-day Israel, and the world will stand with them. President Abu Mazen himself has issued an explicit warning in this sense.
For Israelis, this is the ultimate “nightmare scenario”, the ending of the Jewish national State that Israel has been meant to be – and so far is. Already now, of the around nine million people in Israel and the Occupied Territories combined (excluding Gaza, which is a problem unto itself, and could theoretically become its own State, with Israeli blessing and a sense of relief), three million are Palestinians (including one million already now living in Israel itself with Israeli citizenship).
With their significantly higher rate of population growth, the Palestinians could soon even become the majority in a unitary State. For many of the Israeli opinion leaders who have over the years strenuously advocated for peace with an independent Palestinian State, precisely this, the “nightmare prospect” of a unitary State that is no longer Jewish has been the most powerful argument.
Some observers, albeit still a small minority, are arguing that the situation is already irreversible, with half a million Israeli settlers already living in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and East Jerusalem) alongside two million Palestinians. Meron Benvenisti, a respected commentator and a former Israeli deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has been saying this publicly for years. Others, the majority, believe there is still time, but not much time. Already the repatriation of half a million settlers – or even of less than the total number, if Israel and Palestine do agree some territorial exchanges – is looming as a mammoth task, which can only be contemplated with the most massive international funding, of the kind that might only be possible if the peace treaty is firmly set within a multilateral framework, such as that set up by the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. This is even more of a consideration if the huge cost is likewise borne in mind of resolving the problem of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War and from the 1967 War, (the latter are fewer but still numerous enough).
Going back to the beginning, the question remains why this rapid climb-down by the US, for the second time in less than a year? No one may have the complete answer. Yet several factors appear to be at play:
1. The President is heavily engaged upon several key domestic policy issues, by which his presidency will be defined, and may very well not consider it wise to expend too much political capital in a brutal fight with the self-styled “pro-Israel lobby”, made up largely of a certain kind of Evangelical Christian movements and others, all of them with little knowledge or understanding of the realities in the Holy Land.
2. The Administration may have also come to the conclusion that it would be better to let Israel work out by itself its own supreme national interest in peace with the Palestinians now under its occupation, and that that might be, ultimately, the more fruitful option.
3. And of course, for months the Administration has been engaged in an all-consuming effort to dissuade Israel from launching a preventive attack on Iranian nuclear installations. The Vice President’s visit to Israel was primarily intended as a part of this effort. Israel’s fear of an Iranian nuclear bomb is genuine; it is shared by all Israelis, of the right, the centre and the left.
Iran’s nuclear programme and the risks for Israel and the United States
It is the overwhelming existential issue facing the Jewish State today, according to practically everyone in Israel. It is daily reinforced by the Iranian regime’s threats to wipe Israel off the map. And Israel is seeing that the West is being completely ineffective in its declared attempts to persuade the Iranians to give up their suspect nuclear project. Dialogue and negotiations have not worked, and there is no current sign that they may ever work, not before Iran actually obtains its nuclear bomb. The sanctions promised by the US and other Western countries are not materializing at the U.N. Security Council, and any present and currently foreseeable sanctions are puny and risible, more likely simply to anger the Iranian regime and spur it on to increase and accelerate its nuclearisation efforts than to force it to call a halt to them.
Under these conditions, the possibility is real that Israel may consider itself obliged to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear installations. The Israelis are the first to appreciate the potentially horrific consequences of such a move. They are bracing for unrelenting waves of retaliatory missile attacks from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Gaza’s Hamas, as well as possibly by long-range missiles from Iran itself. They are therefore in no hurry to launch the military option. But unless they see meaningful action by the West, under purposeful US leadership, they may conclude that the magnitude of the threat from Iran makes the bearing the cost of a military attack an unavoidable necessity.
The United States is extremely concerned about this. Apart from the potential for the general destabilization of the Middle East, and areas beyond, there is also the immediate concern for the tens of thousands of American troops still stationed in Iraq, just across the border from Iran, which will very probably target them already in its first wave of retaliatory attack. Hence, the intensity of US efforts to dissuade Israel from exercising on its own the military option to stop Iran. This must now, as a matter of emergency, take first place—the Administration may have concluded—whatever the cost in terms of postponing for another day any reckoning with Israel over what Administration spokespersons only last week characterized as an offence and an insult to the United States, in the matter of the settlements.
It is true that the settlement drive itself is portrayed by US civilian and military officials as damaging to the national security interest of the US, because of its inflammatory effects in a highly flammable regional situation, but the scale of the danger over the Iranian matter may mean to them that coordinating with Israel over Iran must, without question, take first place, at least for now.