The Obama administration is playing a very dangerous game in trying to slink out of the clear understanding on settlements that the George W. Bush administration made with then-Israeli premier Ariel Sharon in 2003. This is bad and unethical policy at any time, and an unimaginably shabby treatment of an allied democracy that the U.S. and others are effectively relying on to do the world’s dirty work for it yet again — in Iran, in the shambles of the failed Obama policy to engage that primitive regime about nuclear weapons. The Iranian Islamic Republic has certainly been weakened, a fact from which almost every other country in the world will benefit. But the world is watching the spectacle of Obama being more indulgent of the thuggery of Ahmadinejad and his clerical masters than is practically any other democracy, while trying unilaterally to rewrite America’s relations with one of its closest allies, to that ally’s disadvantage.
In addition to being dishonest and imprudent, it is untimely, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed a two-state solution and an end to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, as long as the Palestinians accept Israel as a legitimate Jewish state and cannot militarily threaten it.
It was impossible to get anywhere with longtime PLO leader Yasser Arafat: He simply ignored the Oslo Agreement, for which he and Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize. When then-premier Ehud Barak, under President Clinton’s auspices in 2000, tried to reach an agreement with Arafat, the PLO leader made it clear that he didn’t want an agreement at all, and preferred to remain co-star with the premier of Israel in the world’s liveliest crisis rather than become the head of another dusty little Third World despotism. For Arafat, all negotiations were just an attempt to get as close as possible to the destruction of Israel before finally throwing down the mask and relying exclusively on violence. In 2000, he demanded the right of return of five million alleged Palestinians to Israel, to drown the Jewish state demographically and reduce the Jews, once more, to their ancient status of an oppressed minority. He broke up the conference and declared the Second Intifada.
Disillusioned Israel replaced Barak with Ariel Sharon, who crushed the intifada as humanely as possible, performing the additional service of exposing the bigotry of most of the international media, which had fallen for the false PLO claim of an Israeli massacre at Jenin. After Arafat’s long-overdue and universally unlamented death, Sharon made another supreme effort, as had Rabin, Peres, and Barak, to make a durable peace. He undertook to end the geographic extension of West Bank settlements, withdraw from Gaza, dismantle a few settlements, annex no more Palestinian territory, and accept the so-called Road Map. This was an arrangement that purported to confer some status on the European Union, Russia, and the U.N., none of which had done anything in the Middle East in decades except cheer on the Arabs and demand more concessions from Israel. Sharon retained the right to expand settlements within their existing boundaries.
Sharon honored all of his promises, although he lost four ministers; was repudiated by his own Likud party; had to found a new party (Kadima); narrowly achieved implementation of his program; and then was permanently immobilized by strokes. Now Netanyahu, Sharon’s successor as leader of Likud, has accepted the 2003 agreement — but the new U.S. administration has inflicted on him the sophistry that, in Mrs. Clinton’s expression, there was not an “enforceable” agreement in the first place. That is true only in the sense that Israel has no power to enforce it against the U.S.
There is, however, a binding agreement, evidenced by documentation, the specific recollections of the participants on both sides, and the subsequent performance of the parties. Yet President Obama and his secretary of state are now claiming that no settlements can be expanded, even within their existing borders, regardless of natural population growth.
Like most Middle Eastern arguments, the question of Israel’s borders is impossible to resolve legalistically. The Arabs claim that Israel was a land-grab by the great powers to salve the collective conscience of the West after the anti-Semitic atrocities of the Nazis and their allies (which only the British Army prevented the Arabs from trying to emulate). Israel’s claim, as Netanyahu recently reminded his listeners, is based on the ancient homeland of the Jews, updated by the unanimous and uniquely legitimizing vote of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members, and supplemented by the acquired rights of over 60 years of successful, democratic statehood.
The 900,000 Palestinians who fled in the fighting of 1948 unleashed by the Arabs can no more return to Israel than the almost equally large number of Jews who fled from Arab countries at about the same time can be reestablished in the countries they fled. The Arab powers have cynically kept the Palestinians festering in subhuman conditions in camps for 60 years, in order to encourage as many of them as possible to become agitators and terrorists.
The 1967 borders were just where the fighting stopped in 1948: The Israelis would have accepted less if the Arabs had not gone to war against the new state. The Arab powers initiated the Six-Day War of 1967, and they lost it. The status of aggressors is not interchangeable with that of defenders; nor is the status of victorious powers interchangeable with that of defeated ones. Arbitrary assertions of clear legal right by either side are nonsense.
Israel made a catastrophic error in retaining all the land it gained in the 1967 war. Jordan’s King Hussein, who was devious and opportunistic, but also honorable and civilized, handed the land over to Arafat; terrorism began in earnest and, unfortunately, it worked — to such an extent that Israel has had to concede a Palestinian state. (Of course, if Hussein hadn’t been wheedled into the war by Nasser, he wouldn’t have lost the West Bank and half of Jerusalem.)
Israel also made a serious mistake in bungling the war on Hezbollah three years ago, when even Egypt and Saudi Arabia were encouraging the Israeli war effort. But the animosity between Israel and the major Arab powers has declined sharply, and most Arab governments are unappreciative of Iran’s intervention in the Arab world, on behalf of elements that are almost as hostile to the main Arab governments as to Israel (such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and the Muslim Brotherhood).
There are indications that Netanyahu, when in Washington a few weeks ago, offered Obama a massive effort to resolve the Palestinian issue if the U.S. will recruit the forces necessary to take out the Iranian nuclear program, and that — as a fallback position — he is now dangling before the main Arab powers, including Iraq, an Israeli-led takeout of the same installations, in exchange for Arab assistance in resolving the Palestinian problem on a basis close to what Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon, and now Netanyahu himself have proposed. It is a complicated and unforgiving part of the world. If the U.S. continues to waffle and equivocate — and Jerusalem, Cairo, Riyadh, and Baghdad work out their own solutions to Iran’s nuclear threat and the ageless Palestinian issue — the U.S. will become superfluous to the region. That would not be an entirely bad outcome for anyone, and would conform to the general current retreat of American influence, but is hardly the announced goal of the shabby and, so far, ineffectual Obama-Clinton Middle East policy.