How Obama Must Deal With Israeli Avoidance Methods

As Barack Obama seeks leadership of the nuclear nonproliferation cause this week, the long shadow cast by the Arab-Israeli conflict is close by. And a proliferation of peace plan advice is coming his way, inspired by reports that his administration may be planning to issue its own plan.

So far, the heaviest hitters’ advice is that from former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Congressman Stephen Solarz, in their jointly written editorial in The Washington Post. They call on Obama to make a dramatic gesture: To travel to Jerusalem with world leaders and declare a four-point plan. This would, they argue, make it possible for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to deal with their recalcitrant elements.

I hope the president doesn’t listen to them. On the face of it, the Brzezinski-Solarz plan-for-Obama’s-plan looks eminently reasonable and even-handed, with bitter pills dished out to “both sides.” But it puts the United States in a needlessly exposed position.

It is one thing for former government representatives to airily dismiss international law as regards Palestinian refugee rights in exchange for an Israeli agreement to share Jerusalem, which is not legally Israel’s to share. It is quite another for the highest American official to do so.

The United States should indeed have a clear idea of its bottom line because it simply cannot leave the matter to be negotiated by the two sides, given the vast imbalance of power. But it should not publicly announce a peace plan. What it should publicly announce is that it will not recognize any changes Israel has made beyond the Green Line, and that it will encourage its partners to do the same.

For starters, Obama could dust off that 1979 State Department ruling that Israeli settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” Never revoked, it peeps through the verbiage every now and then. Now it needs to be rearticulated forcefully.

Further, the Administration should begin public investigations of how much of its own aid — and that of U.S. non-profits — supports settlement activity, with a view to stemming that flow.

This will send the clearest message yet to the Israeli government — and to the settlers — to stop settlements and begin to pull back. Buying property there will become unattractive while supporting settlements would be a risky enterprise for law-abiding Americans.

Concurrently, the Obama administration should continue the steady if unglamorous task of pushing for a final and comprehensive agreement, albeit at a much, much faster pace and backed by clear costs for Israel for not ending its occupation. And it should call on Europe — Israel’s largest trading partner — to help make the costs of occupation clear. This will lessen the heat on the Administration and present Israel with a determined united front that says: Yes, to security for the citizens of Israel, No to occupation, injustice, and inequality.

There is a pressing reason to go public with such a stand. The Israeli government and settlers are rapidly changing the nature of the West Bank and East Jerusalem by expanding settlements, roads, and barriers, according to the people impacted by them. And it is becoming increasingly untenable for Palestinians to hang on to their lands and homes or to a decent living, in spite of the happy spin sometimes spun about the occupied territories. Only U.S. pressure can put a stop to this, and it needs to be done now: Post-November’s midterm elections may be too late.

Any attempt to cajole Israel into better behavior and to seek incremental improvements will be met with well-honed Israeli avoidance methods, as the Administration discovered over the past year. Here are just three examples of such methods.

First, they keep everyone on the run. For example, as Ha’aretz just revealed, a new Israeli military order will enable the deportation of thousands of West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians. Israel benefits even if the order is never implemented: Attention will undoubtedly shift to this new emergency, sucking up time and energy now spent on Jerusalem and settlements.

Second, they dig in their heels for as long as possible, and only offer minor concessions while carrying on business as usual — as with the unconscionable siege of Gaza.

And third, they use diversionary tactics — lately, it is the Iranian ‘nuclear threat’, which even defense minister Ehud Barak said is not an existential threat to Israel.

So, as Obama sifts through the peace plan advice coming his way, he would do well to keep his intentions tucked up his sleeve, go public on what America will not support, and in other ways put a brake on Israel’s fast creation of facts on the ground — while remorselessly pushing the process to a conclusion. This approach won’t be easy. But it is more likely to succeed.