MIDEAST: Israel Hovers Between War and Peace

  • Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (jerusalem)
  • Tuesday, March 23, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

It is first and foremost about how he chooses to operate at what Israel sees as a critical juncture between possible peace with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and possible war with Iran.

He may be pressed to make his choice when he meets with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Will Netanyahu dare defy Obama on the issue of Israeli settlement expansion in occupied East Jerusalem and the issues to be negotiated with the Palestinians? Or, will he unexpectedly back down for fear of incurring the wrath of the U.S. President?

On the eve of his departure, Netanyahu assured the U.S. that Israel was now willing to widen the scope of the ‘proxy’ talks with the Palestinians to include the core issues of borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem, and that he is amenable to easing the tight blockade which Israel imposes on the Gaza Strip.

On the other hand, Netanyahu put on record his continued defiance with regard to building in East Jerusalem. 'As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv,' Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

Netanyahu clearly has yet to realise that simply tiptoeing around the issue of more Israelis being settled in East Jerusalem will not enable the U.S. to make up after the vigorous high-profile quarrel between the two allies.

That is because the current crisis in Israeli-U.S. ties goes much deeper than whether Israel should be allowed to get away with building 1,600 new homes in north-east Jerusalem, or encouraging a few dozen more settlers to privately ensconce themselves in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods around the walled Old City and its disputed holy sites.

It is more than about what Meir Shitrit, a former government minister and a leading member of the centrist opposition Kadima Party, says is the root cause of the current dispute: 'Netanyahu’s patent failure to conduct any peace talks during the past year.'

What about the U.S. insistence that Israel face up to the fundamental question it has avoided for nearly four-and-a-half decades since it occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Were does it really want its borders to be? Will it ever be prepared to end its hold on Palestinian lands?

Obama, his stature boosted by the historical domestic achievement in pushing through his healthcare reform, may demonstrate magnanimity by holding off on the demand that Netanyahu answer the questions right now.

But already it is apparent that the U.S. will not allow Netanyahu to escape the unanswered question of Israel’s future border with the future Palestinian state-to-be for long.

The renewed talks between Israel and the PA that are now in the offing have been tentatively allocated four months.

Netanyahu may not yet have realised also that there is a lifeline unexpectedly offered to him by the PA itself.

The Palestinians are making plain that they do understand there is a sort of conjunction of interests between them and Israel not to get embroiled into an out-and-out confrontation - even in spite of the provocative measures and declarations by Israel over East Jerusalem.

Palestinian policy is clear-cut: Get an internationally recognised state - with or without Israeli acceptance - by the end of end 2011.

They know that the European Union is already on board with that calendar, and believe the U.S. would move closer to accepting that approach, should Netanyahu continue to opt for obduracy.

As for Netanyahu, he faces a split government.

At stake is not so much the Israeli claim to sovereignty over East Jerusalem. On that there is consensus.

How much Israel needs the U.S. is what divides the pragmatists from the ideological hardliners in his cabinet. Especially, how much it needs the U.S. for what it considers a challenge much bigger than peace-making with the Palestinians, how to ward off what is uniformly seen in Israel as the existential threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Pragmatists like defence minister Ehud Barak warn that Israel dare not flout U.S. interests in the area for fear Washington will back away from a showdown with Iran.

Rightwing ideologues, the dominant force in the Netanyahu government, on the other hand, say Obama is gradually moving towards acquiescing in an Iranian bomb, and that Israel eventually will be left on its own to confront the threat.

Where Netanyahu himself stands on this critical crossroad between possible peace and possible war may become clearer during his talks in Washington over the next few days.

There was a slightly ominous pointer to what the Israeli leader really believes when he told his cabinet last week, 'It is of utmost importance to understand that the state of Israel and the U.S. have common interests, and we will act according to the vital interests of the state of Israel.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?