When the right-wing Benyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel the first time round in 1996, Clinton-administration officials barely disguised their bitter disappointment. For the next three years, relations between the U.S. and Israel would be dominated by tempests-in-teapots such as what an Israeli bulldozer might have been doing in a particular neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
Let’s grant that the Likud party’s policy of Jewish settlements in occupied territories is an obstacle to peace. That should never have been allowed to draw all attention away from the far more deadly and intractable obstacles to peace on the Palestinian side. Alas, history is repeating itself.
After Labor came back to power at the end of Clinton’s term, Yasser Arafat was able to secure almost every concession that Palestinians could ask for at Camp David in 2000 — and promptly rejected the deal. Weeks later, Arafat unleashed the “second intifada” — not a popular uprising like the first, but an organized campaign of suicide bombings that would kill a thousand Israeli civilians in just a few years. The concessions Israel had made for peace, including withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, had proven suicidal.
Many of these same Clinton hands are back at the helm of the “peace process” now, but they hardly seem to have learned from its failures. The Israeli decision to build hundreds of new housing units in a heavily Jewish area of East Jerusalem was “condemned” by the Obama administration. The reaction revealed the personal animus that Obama’s advisers feel toward Netanyahu, a hostility that is a relic of the Clinton administration and an extension-by-proxy of U.S. partisan politics. The reaction also demonstrated that U.S. officials still don’t understand what they themselves have done wrong.
Let’s reiterate that Israeli settlements in the West Bank over many decades have proven a disaster for Israel and everyone else. The mid-1970s alliance of Israel’s secular, security-minded conservatives with an amalgam of religious parties — the future basis both of the settlers’ movement and of the Likud coalitions — created a new set of problems for Israel. This alliance saw the occupied territories not as bargaining chips for a peace settlement, but as land that was both necessary for secure borders and vital to the Zionist birthright. As Bernard Avishai recounts in The Tragedy of Zionism (1985), the project to annex the occupied territories into a “Greater Israel” brought to a fatal point the inherent contradiction between the democratic and nation-state aims of Zionism. How could Israel remain both Jewish and democratic within borders that contained an Arab majority?
But what of the Arabs? After 1967, successive Israeli Labor governments (under Golda Meier and then Yitzhak Rabin) had hoped to trade the occupied territories for peace, but the Arabs simply were not interested. The Arab League adopted the “three no’s of Khartoum”: no peace, no recognition, no negotiation. What they wanted was “justice.” And “justice” meant an end to the “occupation,” in the sense Arabs had used the word since 1948, the sense in which they still use it today, which is to say the occupation of any inch of Arab land by any Jewish state.