World View: Is Israel really prepared to accept isolation?
Donald Trump will be the only major global leader to back pro-settler policies
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu at Hatzerim air force base on Thursday. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA
Binyamin Netanyahu’s response both to last week’s UN Security Council resolution criticising illegal Israeli settlements (on a 14-0 vote, with the US abstaining) and to US secretary of state John Kerry’s speech on Wednesday was characteristically belligerent. The US had not changed its policy, long articulated in private urgings, but, in frustration at continued prevarication and provocations, it was expressed in a UN vote and spoken out loud.
The Israeli prime minister berated the perfidy of US president Barack Obama, vowing that his country would retaliate diplomatically and cut off Israeli funding to the UN. And in a break with traditional Israeli non-engagement in US partisan politics, Netanyahu praised US president-elect Donald Trump, who has promised to repudiate Obama’s last-ditch Middle East initiative.
“Stay strong, Israel, ” Trump wrote on Twitter. “January 20th is fast approaching!”
Netanyahu responded warmly.
The Israeli prime minister also appears close, finally, to repudiating, as his right-wing and settler cabinet allies have been urging, the idea of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict that has been the cornerstone of international and regional diplomatic efforts for years. Kerry warned that the Israeli government was undermining any hope of a two-state solution.
“The status quo is leading toward one state and perpetual occupation,” Kerry said, and vigorously defended the resolution. “It is not this resolution that is isolating Israel. It is the permanent policy of settlement construction that risks making peace impossible.”
Netanyahu recently described his government as “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history”, and Naftali Bennett, a settler leader and one of his coalition partners, announced confidently that “the era of the two-state solution is over”.
Yet Netanyahu’s willingness to embrace the right-wing agenda may not be total. And the initial welcome for Trump’s choice as new US ambassador, David M Friedman, who has helped fund some of the settlements and announced his wish to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, may have to be qualified. Friedman’s zeal may have to be restrained
Since the US election, pro-settlement leaders in the Israeli cabinet have pushed for legislation retroactively legalising outposts on privately owned Palestinian land declared illegal by Israel’s Supreme Court. Netanyahu has been reluctant to support this, even warning colleagues that it could lead to an investigation by the International Criminal Court, according to the newspaper Haaretz.
And Netanyahu has recently been able to boast some success in building new relations with some of Israel’s neighbours, primarily Egypt and Jordan, and also with Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Fears of Iran’s theocratic Shia leadership and of the country’s re-emerging regional influence, not least in Syria and Iraq, following its deal on nuclear weapons, has muted their criticism of Israel in a growing marriage of convenience.
This has largely been possible because of the recent relative silence of the Palestinian issue, which remains capable of generating enormous emotional resonances among their peoples. A resumption of settlement activity and a US embassy move to Jerusalem could be explosive in reigniting an internal intifada and sympathy protests on the streets of many regional capitals. In those circumstances, the quiet alliance with Israel may become politically too expensive for its neighbours. Netanyahu may find himself again isolated if he indulges the right.
Israel has argued against the UN resolution and the prescriptions suggested by Kerry for a “final status” deal with the Palestinians aimed at kick-starting negotiations, because they supposedly pre-empt and circumscribe Israel’s hand in any such talks. But any resumption of illegal settlements, particularly in Jerusalem, would do precisely that by establishing yet more Israeli “facts on the ground”.
And the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem would be seen by the right and Palestinians alike as tacit recognition by the US of Israel’s claim to the city as its undivided capital, an enormously provocative move.
But if anything is going to doom talks before they start, it will be the repudiation of the idea of a two-state solution, a repudiation supported by Friedman. From his right flank, Netanyahu faces calls to give up the two-state formula and instead annex parts of the West Bank. From the other side, some Palestinians now advocate a single state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, in which everyone has an equal vote, knowing that Palestinians would ultimately outnumber Jewish citizens in such a country. This is a formula completely unacceptable to Israel.
The real choices for Netanyahu are threefold: a two-state solution with the possibility of talks and a deal with the Palestinians; the drift and permanent instability of the status quo; or partial or total annexation of the occupied territories into Israel without extending voting rights to Palestinians. Both of the latter options are ticking time bombs, recipes for continued violence and international isolation.
“He has to choose between the international community and Bennett,” says Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Is Israel going to alienate itself from the whole world for the sake of settlement activity? And it is the whole world. Is this what Zionism is about?”
The whole world minus Trump. Is it worth it, Bibi?