Choices About Netanyahu

Israelis repeatedly say that, on the Palestinian side, there is no partner for peace. I would turn this formula around and state that Benjamin Netanyahu is no partner for peace.

Netanyahu has twice thumbed his nose at his major ally and protector, the United States: first at President Barack Obama when the latter asked for a halt to all Israeli settlements on Arab lands; and second at Vice-President Joe Biden, who was greeted on his recent visit to Israel with the news that 1,600 new housing units are to be constructed in Arab East Jerusalem, "annexed" by the Israelis but never recognized as such by the U.S. or the International Community.

It is beside the point whether Netanyahu was aware of the Interior Ministry's decision to start these new settlements on disputed land (he claimed that he wasn't). The essential point is that he did not repudiate the decision. There is a growing impression that, whenever the United States makes an initiative toward peace, new settlements are flung in its face. This excessively macho policy is presumably attributed as a repudiation of the past. Such a policy is understandable, but it is distinctly unhelpful to U.S. policy interests in the region.

In addition to being a man of maneuver, Netanyahu is a man of conviction. There is a familial history of attachment to the right-wing revisionist movement of Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Netanyahu's father, Benzion, who is a noted author and professor, was a senior aide to Jabotinsky, whose radical movement, a breakaway from mainstream Zionism, favored the creation of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River.

The concession wrung out of Netanyahu in favor of a two-state solution was surrounded by so many restrictions and caveats on his part that his gesture was rendered essentially useless. Netanyahu's obduracy is backed up by huge majorities in that other branch of the American Government, the U.S. Congress -- majorities based on both admiration and... fear. And majorities that have been strengthened in the past decade by the rise of the Christian Zionist movement whose wholehearted support of Israel is based on the premise that the presence of Jews in the Holy Land is a prerequisite to the fulfillment of the Biblical scenarios of the battle of Armageddon and the Last Judgment.

It is time, I would submit, for the United States Administration to come to a "strategic conclusion": that there may eventually be a settlement to the half-century old Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but it will not come during the tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. With this strategic determination as a baseline, the U.S. would then consider its future moves: certainly continuing with attempts at peace during Netanyahu's prime ministership, without expecting significant results, but somehow devising ways to distance itself from him.

Editor's Note: Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. From September 1984 until July 1989 he was CIA Chief in Paris. He is currently an Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. His most recent book, "La République de Dieu," (Éditions Jacob-Duvernet, 2008), is a collection of essays on the idea of God; on evangelism ("La République de Dieu"); on Islamic fundamentalism ("L'Islam médiéval"); followed by chapters analyzing a number of conflicts between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world.