White House 'rethinking' Israel ties, peace process rules

In an extraordinary back and forth, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu tried to walk back his election tough-talk yesterday. But an angry White House was having none of it and looks to be changing the rules for the Middle East peace process as a result.

Military alliance still intact, peace-process backing at UN another matter

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on election night in Tel Aviv. He won a surprise victory with what Israeli observers called a hard-right shift that saw him disavow a commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state. (REUTERS)

Almost certainly, what happened yesterday in the White House briefing room is provoking joy among Palestinians, concern if not fear in Israel, and urgent "taking of views," as the British put it, in foreign ministries worldwide.  

For the first time in decades, Washington is not reflexively and unconditionally standing with Israel.

As a matter of fact, the Obama administration is explicitly doing the opposite.

Repeatedly, President Obama's aptly-named spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters Thursday the U.S. is "rethinking" and "re-evaluating," and "reconsidering" its decades-long, unwavering support of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The days of Washington automatically supporting Israel at the UN, striving to protect it from international isolation may be over: "That foundation has been eroded," said Earnest. "It means that our policy decisions need to be reconsidered."

And the president's spokesman was happy to provide everyone with the reason for America's change of heart: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pre-election declaration earlier this week that shattered, finally, the idea of "the peace process."

I use those quotation marks deliberately. The peace process has been a fiction for many years, if it was ever real at all.

But it was a fiction nearly everyone had an interest in perpetuating: negotiations leading to "two states, living side by side in peace and security."

'Our ally'

For the record, Earnest repeated America's abiding support for that ultimate objective Thursday.

But, he added, "now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution."

Notice the "our ally" reference. An open admission that America supported one side in those talks, and that that has changed.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters after Netanyahu's election win that the Obama administration is reassessing how it wants to proceed on the Middle East peace process. (The Associated Press)

For nearly a quarter of a century, the states-living-side-by-side-in-peace-and-security trope has been sacred diplomatic script.

It's enshrined in the foreign policies of the most important nations. It soothed liberals, and held out promise to Palestinians.

But it was most fiercely cherished and defended by Israel itself, and its supporters worldwide.

There is a simple reason for that: the alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution, and everybody knows what that means: Israel inherits, in perpetuity, millions of disenfranchised Arab subjects, people who procreate at a faster rate than Israelis, creating an ever-uglier and more asymmetrical version of democracy.

As former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak has said, if the status quo continues, the nation between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will either be Jewish, or a democracy, but not both.

Shattered the fiction

On Monday, campaigning hard for re-election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally shattered the fiction of compromise and negotiation.

He would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state, he promised.

He also invoked the shibboleth of an Arab fifth column inside Israel, warning that Arab-Israeli citizens, who are permitted a vote, would come out "in droves" to influence the outcome of the election.

It was a remarkable statement. And, politically at least, it worked; Netanyahu won a decisive re-election.

But in dispensing with the fiction, Netanyahu handed the Palestinian leadership a remarkable gift.

In the past, when Palestinian leaders claimed Israel was negotiating in bad faith, and lobbied world leaders to support a unilateral declaration of independence, the Palestinians were patted on the head and pointed back to the non-existent negotiating table.

The U.S. worked hard to block full Palestinian membership at the UN.

And the Obama administration has warned the Palestinians against any effort to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for its vigorous settlement-building, which violates the laws of war.

Everything, the Palestinians have been instructed, must be negotiated. Unilateral action is intolerable. Statehood is only possible with Israeli consent.

Now, of course, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas can (and almost certainly will) rightly claim that negotiation is no longer possible; that by the Israeli prime minister's own admission, the Palestinians have no one with whom to negotiate.

Walk it back

Netanyahu, realizing that, is now trying to "walk back" his unequivocal declaration.

No, no, no, he told MSNBC Thursday. Everyone misunderstood his meaning.

"I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change," he said. "To make it achievable, then you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace."

In other words, the Palestinians are the barrier, not him.

In the past, the White House has almost always fallen into line on such occasions, supporting Israel. Not this time.

Earnest was careful to tell reporters right off the bat that he'd read the transcript of Netanyahu's hasty climbdown on MSNBC, and then carefully made it clear the White House doesn't believe a word of it.

Will Israel be more internationally isolated as a result of Netanyahu's remarks? Hard to predict, said Earnest.

Can Israel still count on American support at the UN? We're rethinking that.

In reference to Netanyahu's remarks about Arab-Israeli voters, Earnest called it a "cynical election day tactic [that] was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens and their right to participate in their democracy."

It was a remarkable, abrupt reversal of attitude by Israel's powerful friend and patron. (Canada, no doubt, is sticking with Netanyahu, but Canada has no Security Council veto.)

Actually, there is lots of blame to go around for the failed peace process. Both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships have shown blatant bad faith over the years.

Never really a meeting of the minds as this White House photo from September 2013 seems to indicate. (The Associated Press)

But the Israelis, of course, have been the ones in charge, and their stalling has moved in step with the simultaneous expansion of settlements on occupied land.

In 2003, the renowned Jewish thinker and historian Tony Judt published an article declaring that the two-state solution would not happen; that Israel had created too many "facts on the ground," meaning settlers in the occupied territories, and that Israel's citizens must prepare for the "unthinkable" one-state solution with all its implications.

"The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed," he wrote.

Judt was instantly pilloried as a self-hating Jew who advocated the annihilation of Israel.

Unfortunately, he did not live to hear Benjamin Netanyahu validate his thesis.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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