Bypassing the Road Map Road Block How Long Can Israel Resist US Pressure?
As US President Barack Obama presses ahead with his Middle East peace intiatives, America's new tone and new modesty are going down well in the region. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is finding it hard to resist the pressure to compromise on the Palestinian question.
Whenever anyone calls his resourcefulness in difficult situations into question, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to recount an episode from his younger days. He was in his early twenties and was serving in the Israeli Defense Force's elite special forces unit Sayeret Matkal, which had been chosen to gather intelligence behind enemy lines and had a tough-as-nails reputation.
Netanyahu was leading a group of soldiers up a mountain when they suddenly found their path blocked by a giant boulder. With the side of the mountain to the left and a precipice to the right, the group's only real option was to turn around and abort the mission.
But, as Netanyahu likes to relate, he knew just what to do. Using shrubs that were growing out of the cliff, he made his way hand-over-hand around the obstacle, dangling over the abyss, and reached the path on the other side of the boulder.
Forty years later, Netanyahu is being called upon to use his imagination once again. This time, the challenges involve defusing the conflicts in the Middle East and the question of how Israel's relationship with its protective power, the United States, will develop under President Barack Obama. The president has asked him, in no uncertain terms, to accept the possibility of the establishment of a Palestinian state, as his predecessors did.
In a keynote speech on Sunday, the prime minister sought to lay out his plans to address the Palestinian question. He said he was willing to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state -- but set such strict pre-conditions, including the demand that such a state is demilitarized, that there is little chance of an agreement working. He also rejected Obama's calls for a complete halt to settlement building in the West Bank and ruled out giving East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their capital.
Netanyahu has often talked about his vision of a peace with the Palestinians: economic development in the West Bank, which is controlled by the moderate Fatah movement under President Mahmoud Abbas, expansion of the settlements and no cooperation with radical Hamas in the Gaza Strip. He has also repeatedly described Iran as an existential threat to Israel, as well as to the region and the West.
Breaking the Cycle of Violence
Although the United States is very familiar with Netanyahu's position, the White House does not agree with it. Obama is not satisfied with the status quo, but instead wants to change it by defusing the conflicts. For this reason, Netanyahu will hardly be able to resist showing at least a modicum of accommodation in the long term, which includes recognizing the so-called road map for peace as a guideline for Middle East policy.
The road map is a graduated plan that includes obligations for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, the goal being to break through the fatal cycle of crisis and war, intifada uprisings, suicide bombings and military operations. At its core, the plan is about renouncing violence, and its ultimate goal is the recognition of the two-state solution by both sides.
The American president is pursuing the plan, which is not without risk. The Middle East has proved time and again to be a difficult region for ambitious reformers. In the years since the 1993 Oslo framework agreement, there have been several new beginnings, but all were destined to fail. And, often enough, disappointment over breakdowns in negotiations has exploded into new violence -- something former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both experienced for themselves.
And this time?
Obama set the tone in his landmark Cairo speech. Now the execution is up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell.
Netanyahu initially refused to toe the Obama line, straining relations between Israel and the United States. "There were understandings on the settlement issue, but you deceived us and did not uphold them," Mitchell said with brutal directness. He was referring to Israel's international commitment not to build any new settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu complained to close associates that Mitchell's accusation and unexpected tone were "unfair."
President Obama is picking up the pace, hoping to score a success in the Middle East -- other international conflicts, such as those in Pakistan and Afghanistan, will be even more difficult to resolve and are likely to last longer. Mitchell traveled first to Jerusalem, and then to Damascus and Beirut to sound out the key players' willingness to make concessions.
New opportunities are emerging in Damascus, where Syrian President Bashar Assad is eager to shed his status as a pariah in the region, ostracized in the West and dependent on Iran, which is seeking regional hegemony. Negotiations between Israel and Syria over the return of the Golan Heights, brokered by Turkey, had already progressed relatively far, but talks stalled when the war in Gaza erupted.
And now there is new movement in the Middle East, as the effects of Obama's Cairo speech to the Islamic world begin to be felt. In Lebanon's elections, the majority did not vote for the alliance of Shiites and Christians dominated by Hezbollah extremists, as had been expected. Instead, the pro-Western alliance led by Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, won the election.
For now, virulent anti-Americanism no longer appears to be a reliable factor in the Middle East -- a consequence of the Cairo speech, with its emphasis on mutual respect and its offer to approach conflicts in a different way.
- Part 1: How Long Can Israel Resist US Pressure?
- Part 2: Obama's Modest Approach