Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has established himself as the biggest enemy of peace in the Middle East. His thoroughly unwelcome and error-marred speech to Congress on Iran, his last-minute racist scare tactics on election eve in Israel, and his disingenuous post-election statement that he really does support a two-state solution all reveal a man who fears a just Middle East peace and will do everything he can to thwart it.
President Obama has taken the correct position in distancing himself from Netanyahu and, with the usual diplomatic language, making plain that so long as Netanyahu is in charge, the peace process is dead. Their widely reported strained personal relationship is one thing, but the main thing is that the United States and the Palestinian Authority do not have a negotiating partner. What Netanyahu said in the last moments of his electoral campaign simply cannot be walked back: that no two-state solution will ever occur while he is prime minister; and that the Arab vote is a threat to Israel’s political system. This is a man who will say and do whatever it takes to preserve his power and keep the Palestinian people in a subordinate place.
Netanyahu has a lot of help in achieving those objectives, both in Congress and from his embassy in Washington. The Israel Lobby remains powerful and well funded, with many resources for ensuring that military and economic aid to Israel continues, that the Palestinian cause is ignored, and that Israel’s nuclear weapon arsenal is never a fit topic of debate. Netanyahu’s faithful front man–the American-born Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer–is a key figure in the lobby—a man who, like his boss, never takes a backward step when it comes to promoting an expansive notion of Israel’s security needs. He is reportedly working tirelessly to restore Bibi’s credibility and embolden Congress members to maintain sanctions on Iran. Unless and until the Israel Lobby is reined in, significant change in US policy is hard to imagine.
President Obama correctly stated that “figuring out how do we get through a real, knotty policy difference” is the chief challenge now. But “getting through” should not mean salving over the differences and reaffirming the unbreakable US-Israel partnership. Rather, Washington should “get through” by using Netanyahu’s offensive behavior as an opportunity to change course in its Middle East policy.
A new course should include reaffirmation of the two-state solution within the pre-1967 war boundaries, opposition to a Netanyahu-backed bill that would define Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” and major development assistance to the Palestinian Authority (especially in Gaza, which is facing a water crisis among numerous other deprivations).
Working through the United Nations Security Council rather than continuing to rely on bilateral diplomacy with Israel should also be part of a new US agenda. And the President should condemn outright the Israeli-Republican axis that has formed to undermine his efforts to engage Iran and craft a just peace between Israel and Palestine.