President Barack Obama is angry at Israel for announcing new building plans in a disputed area of Jerusalem – while Vice President Biden was visiting.
Obama’s wrath misses the real significance of the incident. Lawmakers who lambaste the administration for criticizing Israel are even further off base.
The fuss has been focused on the timing of the announcement, which embarrassed Biden. But the flap is really about something far more crucial than timing: the danger that prospects for a two-state solution will be choked off before new negotiations ever gain ground.
Israel’s construction in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem – despite a limited freeze – will doom a two-state solution. And the death of the two-state solution is a dire threat to Israel – and us.
As Gen. David Petraeus pointed out in congressional testimony Tuesday, terrorist recruiters feed off Arab anger over the unresolved Palestinian question. That anger also undercuts our Arab allies and fuels anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. Yet the danger to Israel is even greater. If prospects for two states disappear, Israel’s future as a Jewish state is in doubt.
If you doubt my words, pay attention to the recent remarks of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a hard-nosed realist. He noted that 11 million people live in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, which includes Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – 7.5 million Israelis (20 percent of whom are Arab citizens of Israel) and 3.5 million Palestinians.
“As long as, in this territory west of the Jordan River, there is only one political entity called Israel,” said Barak, “it is going to be either non-Jewish or nondemocratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”
This was Ehud Barak, an Israeli military hero, using the word apartheid. Barak was not saying Israel has a deliberate philosophy of apartheid like the former South African regime. But without a two-state solution, the result will look the same.
If Israel keeps the West Bank and Gaza and gives Palestinians the vote, Arab voters will soon outnumber Jewish voters. If Israel refuses Palestinians the vote, disenfranchised Arabs will eventually outnumber Jewish citizens.
Such a state would be untenable and, like South Africa, would be a global pariah. Pressure would mount for a “one-state solution” with a Palestinian majority, which Israel could never accept.
Yet continued building on the West Bank makes a two-state outcome ever less likely. Settlements and settler roads fragment an already small territory. Continued building in and around Arab East Jerusalem makes it impossible for this part of the city to become – as it must in any peace settlement – the capital of a Palestinian state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed a two-state solution, but this means little if prospects for viable Palestinian statehood are shrinking. And the ever-increasing power of the settler lobby was on display with the announcement that derailed the Biden visit.
Obama grasps the problem, but his policy has foundered. The administration called for a total Israeli settlement freeze matched by Arab concessions, but failed to package either as part of a larger strategy. Neither call was heeded.
Obama also has inexplicably failed to visit Jerusalem and persuade Israelis of his support for their country. Meantime, his special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, has been able to set up only indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians – a huge step backward after 20 years of direct talks. They are now postponed.
Indirect talks will go nowhere. In the words of Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and a top expert on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, “We have known for years that interim, incremental, or step-by-step approaches will no longer work.”
Kurtzer wants Obama to present a set of clear U.S. ideas about final status issues – boundaries, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees – along with a strategy to achieve that vision. Such a strategy would require U.S. guarantees for Israel’s security in the long term.
Scolding Israel and demanding the reversal of the housing decision will achieve little unless Obama’s Mideast policy becomes more strategic. The housing flap provides a grim warning about the dangers facing Israel and America if chances for a two-state solution die.
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