By Joharah Baker – Jerusalem
When Likud Party leader and right-wing politician Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister, nobody on this side of the fence broke out the bubbly. In the United States, President Barack Obama remained diplomatic, saying his country would deal with any Israeli government regardless of the formation. However, the ominous cloud hovering over the prospect of any move towards peace was unmistakable. Not only is Netanyahu the premier, his second hand man, the foreign minister, is none other than Russian-immigrant and shameless West Bank settler Avigdor Lieberman. For the Palestinians, this was a match made in hell.
The winds of change seem to be blowing however, at least in the form of a tiny breeze over Capitol Hill. In the past few weeks, there have been more positive statements coming out of Washington than in the whole eight years of President George W. Bush’s term in office. One cannot help but ponder the possibility that the more intransigent the Israeli government becomes vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the more pressure it feels in the opposite direction.
During the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on May 5, US Vice President Joe Biden called on Israel to halt settlement construction and work towards a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
"Israel has to work toward a two-state solution," Biden told AIPAC. "You’re not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement."
Netanyahu is infamously known as one Israeli leader that does not explicitly endorse an independent Palestinian state. He is more of a proponent of economic stability rather than political independence and definitely does not encourage any return of land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. Furthermore, he does not call for a halt to settlements or even a pause in their expansion. On the contrary, since he took office, Israeli government officials have expedited construction in major West Bank settlements including Maaleh Adumim to accommodate even more Jewish settlers on illegally acquisitioned Palestinian land.
Via satellite, Netanyahu told the AIPAC conference that Israel would resume negotiations "without delay and without preconditions" but failed again to mention his government’s endorsement of a two-state outcome of these negotiations. Palestinians say Netanyahu is just trying to buy more time with his fancy words.
"Without a political settlement, meaning an end to Israel’s occupation and the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state, talk of economic peace will be seen for what it is, namely an attempt to normalize and better manage the occupation," Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator said in response to Netanyahu’s speech.
Obviously, this American administration must feel somewhat similar. The US is turning the fire up to medium heat on Israel, especially in regards to the Palestinians, perhaps partly because of the former’s stubborn resistance pulling the opposite way. The other reason, of course is that compared to Bush, Obama is made of different stuff. He will try to push the envelope with Israel, that’s for sure, the first indication of this being this month’s meetings with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders at the White House. Obama has already pitched his "gestures plan" that entails a freeze of settlement construction in exchange for Arab steps towards normalization with Israel.
Another indication came last week when Obama’s national security advisor James Jones said in Europe that Obama would be "forceful" with Israel. "The new administration will convince Israel to compromise on the Palestinian question," Jones said. "We will not push Israel under the wheels of a bus, but we will be more forceful toward Israel than we have been under Bush."
All of these positive signs come in the face of Israel’s continued intransigence and the US’s fear that despite Obama’s good intentions, Netanyahu is not going to budge. If we look at the situation from this angle, the Israeli prime minister’s obstinacy could prove to have positive results for the Palestinians, who have long endorsed a two-state solution. With the Palestinian and US positions so close, Israel may just find itself as the odd man out.
Even Hamas may be changing its tune. In an interview published in the New York Times on May 5, Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal said his movement also seeks the establishment of a Palestinian state on lands occupied in 1967 and a 10-year truce with Israel. When asked about Obama’s approach to the conflict, Meshaal admitted that the President is "speaking a different language."
Hamas’ sincerity is arguable. Plus, it is doubtful that the United States or the international community as a whole will embrace the Islamic movement merely because its leader is a smooth talker. Still, leaders’ words cannot be taken for nothing and if Hamas really embraces a more lenient stance towards conciliation (both internally and internationally) this could have an adverse affect on Israel’s influence in Washington. That is, if even Hamas, the one Palestinian movement demonized by the west and branded as the ultimate obstacle to peace, now begins speaking its language, where does that leave Netanyahu and his cronies? With no real leg to stand on.
Nonetheless, Hamas’ stance is of marginal importance at this point in the game. What really matters are the changing dynamics in US-Israeli relations. For the past eight years Israel has gotten used to having its cake, eating it and dumping the remaining crumbs all over any efforts for real peace. They got away with it for two reasons. One is because of President Bush and his "with us or against us" mentality (where Israel was clearly on the ‘with’ side) and the second is because Israel could hide behind the guise of a left-of-center government that formerly called for peace and a two-state solution. Never mind that this government continued with settlement construction and launched the Lebanon War and Gaza invasion that left scores dead and devastation in its wake. To the world, Ehud Olmert wanted peace but could not achieve it because of the lack of a real Palestinian partner.
Today, both those components are gone. Netanyahu will have to accommodate this new US administration (which by the way remains unwavering in its commitment to Israel). Likewise, Obama has his work cut out for him in trying to reach an Israeli government whose top two officials hardly disguise their seething emotions towards their neighbors.
If we’re lucky, the refreshing cool breeze coming from Washington will turn into a gust of strong wind and force the hand of this unyielding Israeli government. Maybe, just maybe, all we need for real change is someone like Netanyahu.
– Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)