The Obama-Likud Staredown: Who's Going to Blink?

08/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Israel and the United States have already begun negotiations over whether there is going to be a two-state solution or not, and the Israelis have begun employing all the negotiating tricks they have become accustomed to using with the Palestinians. But there is a significant difference in the disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians on the one hand, and Israel and the United States on the other, that the diplomats in the Israeli government haven't yet picked up on. (Israeli Government Press Director Daniel Seamen reacted to US policy on settlements by sarcastically saying: "I have to admire the residents of Iroquois territory for assuming that they have a right to determine where Jews should live in Jerusalem," which tells you a lot about how the Israelis view the Palestinians.) Let's hope that the US does a better job in earning Israel's respect than the Palestinians have in their negotiations thus far.

Here's the standard operating procedure: Israel takes a provocatively strong opening position. The other side is outraged but enters negotiations. Israel issues leaks, almost every day, that are designed to suggest the Palestinians are about to make a major compromise on their core principles, undermining the Palestinian negotiating position. The Palestinians struggle to present their position. The Israelis spread false rumors about Palestinians involved in the talks as flanking attacks designed to put them on the defensive. If the Palestinians are not yet fully on the defensive, Israel announces facts on the ground that fly in the face of good faith efforts to end the conflict. Finally, the talks fail in a manner that allows the Israelis to present the Palestinians as the obstinate party. Israel is the aggrieved nation that has no partner in peace.

If it works, why change the script? Netanyahu's opening gambit with the Obama administration on settlements has been that Jews have the right to build anywhere in Israel or the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights, including East Jerusalem. Almost every other day now, Israeli newspapers have printed reports that the United States is prepared to compromise President Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's clear and unambiguous demand of an end to all settlement activity in the occupied territory. On Monday, just as the Mitchell Team was lining up compromises on early normalization from Arab states, Prime Minister Netanyahu was quoted in the Washington Post saying that "We cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem." Senior Likud officials have been making the rounds telling everyone why there won't be a Palestinian state. Now, former White House National Security official Elliott Abrams, a strong Likud supporter, has suggested that Special Envoy George Mitchell wants to retire by the end of the year.

Pretty hardball stuff from the Israelis and their right-wing supporters in the US.

So what is at stake?

In fact, these negotiations about settlements are about whether President Obama's goals of a comprehensive peace agreement within two years will be stillborn or not.

The Israeli discourse right now is based entirely on a narrative in which the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem are already part of Israel -- and in which the Gaza Strip is a large open-air prison. The public rhetoric by Likud officials about Jews being allowed to live anywhere in "Eretz Israel" is an attempt to transform the international narrative from one of a two state solution to a demographic question for one state.

Essentially, this Israeli government views the problem not as one over land, but as one over non-Jews, who, unfortunately for ethnic nationalists, compose about half the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. What Israel wishes to negotiate is how to treat those non-Jews in a manner that does not prejudice Israel's continued colonization of the territory it is integrating into its heartland without affording them citizenship.

But that is a very different narrative than the one the United States and the international community have. In our narrative, both Palestinians and Israelis have equal rights to self-determination, but in the territory international law has accorded each nation. The territory Israel conquered in 1967 is occupied and as such the Geneva Conventions apply to Israel's rule. Any attempt to colonize the territory by importing settler populations or to remove the existing population is expressly prohibited.

US diplomats are now stuck. If they blink and actually legitimate -- in a formal agreement -- any Israeli settler activity, they will not only be condoning a breach of international law but they will be validating the Israeli position that this conflict is all about demographics.

The Arab states that were prepared to offer elements of normalization as a down payment on peace will run for the exit. The Palestinians who were backing the US position by insisting that they would not engage in permanent status negotiations until there was a settlement freeze will be stuck. Most importantly, those elements in Israel who believe that there is no such thing as a US president who can defend US interests when they conflict with those of a right-wing Israeli government will be emboldened. If the conventional wisdom that Netanyahu is ultimately a pragmatist is right -- this will strengthen those elements of his constituency who want him to stand firm against peace. The pragmatist in him will be forced to concede that he will have to buck the US in every future step as well, because his constituency knows that he can.

So what now? Do the US and Israel simply stare at each other for the next six months? That too can't be allowed to happen.

The US should find a way of going into permanent status negotiations anyway -- even if it is the US negotiating permanent status issues with the parties instead of them negotiating with each other at first. But the pressure for a settlement freeze has to continue during this process, with the US unambiguously adopting the only narrative it can support for a two-state solution. Settlements are illegal, and therefore there should be consequences for US aid to settlements, such as the 20-unit complex in East Jerusalem purchased by a Miami-based businessman, and for the use of US weaponry in the occupied territory in violation of US law. (Britain has already blocked the sale of spare parts to Israeli gunboats for their use in attacking civilians in Gaza and most countries that sell weapons to Israel prohibit their use in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.)

The Palestinians may have a built-in disadvantage in negotiating with the Israelis because of the disparity of power. The United States shouldn't make the mistake of assuming we are the Palestinians when it comes to our negotiations with Likud.