Conspicuous for its absence in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week was any mention of what is variously called the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Middle East peace process. Israeli analyst Yoram Ettinger suggests that this “reflects a US order of priorities and, possibly, a concern that mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict does not advance—but undermines—Obama’s domestic standing.”
Conceivably, a similar premise underlies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent demonstrative acts in favor of settlement in the West Bank. Last week, just after a meeting in Jerusalem with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Netanyahu marked the tree-planting holiday of Tu Bishvat by planting trees in public ceremonies in the Jerusalem-area West Bank settlements of Kfar Etzion and Maale Adumim. He capped it off on Friday with a tree-planting ceremony in Ariel, a settlement somewhat deeper in the West Bank in Samaria. There Netanyahu suggested that the settlement was a crucial part of Israel:
“Everyone who understands the geography of Israel know how important Ariel is. It is the heart of our country. We are here where are forefathers were, and we will stay here.”
And on Sunday Benny Begin, son of the former prime minister and a member of Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet, took part in a cornerstone-laying ceremony in yet another West Bank settlement, Beit Hagai, and said:
“The state of Israel and the people of Israel have interests in Judea and Samaria [West Bank] and in Jerusalem, which are not only security-related, but based on an ancient affiliation.”
Considering that in November Obama harshly criticized Israel for planning to build within a neighborhood of Jerusalem, also conspicuous for its absence, so far, is any public U.S. rebuke of Netanyahu or Begin for these gestures. Ettinger suggests that Obama’s “involvement with the Arab-Israeli conflict has diverted his attention from issues which are much more important…eroded [his] support among the American people, [and] complicated his relations with friends of Israel on Capitol Hill, whose support is critical to Obama’s legislative agenda.”
Although it may be too early to assume a waning of Obama’s pressures on Israel, his words in his recent Time interview also strengthen that impression. “This is as intractable a problem as you get,” Obama said. “Both sides—the Israelis and the Palestinians—have found that the political environment [was] such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation.” If so, a lull in the grimly relentless diplomatic activity on the Israeli-Palestinian front would be a chance to rethink some assumptions that have become all too axiomatic.
One is that the Palestinian side should always be coddled, with infinite patience, and should never have to pay a price for its failures. With Netanyahu having declared in November an unprecedented ten-month freeze in new construction in the West Bank, and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas continuing to refuse to hold talks with him, it can be hoped that Netanyahu’s and Begin’s affirmations signal a new Israeli assertiveness. It is only for the Palestinians that land, and offers, are kept indefinitely on hold even as they preach hatred and practice rejectionism. Energetically resuming settlement activity at the end of the ten months would, for once, be a fitting response.
It could also be asked whether the pursuit of a Palestinian state as a supposed panacea has ever made much sense in normative terms. Human Rights Watch has published its World Report 2010 and gives a rundown of the human rights situation in Middle Eastern Arab countries that is anything but encouraging. Regarding women’s rights, the report points out that:
“Perpetrators of so-called honor killings in Jordan (where there were at least 20 such killings), and in Syria (at least 12), benefit from legal provisions that mitigate their punishments…. Domestic abuse went largely unpunished in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In Lebanon and Jordan, where domestic abuse can be tried as assault, protection mechanisms for women are largely inadequate and ineffective.”
As for prison conditions, “Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen failed to tackle frequent incidents of torture. Jordan’s prison reform program has not strengthened accountability mechanisms for torture….”
Minority rights—“Saudi Arabia discriminated against its Shia population…. Kurds, Syria’s largest non-Arab ethnic minority, were subject to systematic discrimination….” and so on.
Considering that all these abuses—oppression of women, torture in prisons, persecution of the Christian minority—already exist in the Palestinian Authority (not to mention Hamas-ruled Gaza), a diplomatic lull could be a time, particularly from an American standpoint, to question whether the dogged pursuit of a Palestinian state holds up to scrutiny. Instilling democracy in the Arab world may not have been realistic; creating another dictatorship—apart from the security threat it would pose to Israel—would appear worse than pointless.
Instead, a combination of Israeli assertiveness and U.S. benign neglect would convey the right messages to the Palestinians: that they, too, are subject to the cost-benefit calculi of human life and there are costs for clinging to radical positions rooted in a vision of Israel’s demise; that their present situation of enhanced autonomy under Israeli security control is quite feasible for Israel, which has always had its own interests and attachments in the West Bank.