Israel's New Government and Palestinian Statehood

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

TODAY the Israeli parliament will probably approve a new government that, from Washington's point of view, looks problematic. Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu had a rocky relationship with the Clinton administration when he last held the post in the late 1990s. His new coalition is dominated by nationalists and religious fundamentalists; his choice for foreign minister has proposed stripping Arabs of citizenship unless they pledge their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. Arab leaders are sounding the alarm about a coalition that, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat charged on the opposite page Saturday, exemplifies "some of the worst traditions in Israeli politics."

Some of the angst is surely overblown. In the past, Israeli governments described in similar terms have achieved breakthroughs in peace negotiations. Mr. Netanyahu is a capable politician who says he has learned from past mistakes; he went out of his way to recruit the dovish Labor Party to join his coalition. Yesterday he delivered a speech committing his government to "do its utmost to achieve a just and lasting peace with all our neighbors and the Arab world in general."

There are nevertheless several grounds for concern about Mr. Netanyahu's government. The new prime minister leans heavily toward military solutions, at least rhetorically: He has promised to "smash" Hamas in Gaza and suggested that Israel will have little patience for a U.S. attempt to conduct a dialogue with Iran. Though he has promised to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Netanyahu has never endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state -- and he has said that he will support the "natural growth" of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Obama administration can restrain Israel from launching an independent attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and, barring serious new provocations by Hamas, should pressure the new government to maintain the peace with Gaza. The remaining problem is how to respond to Mr. Netanyahu's failure to accept Palestinian statehood, which in the past decade has become the anchor of U.S. policy in the region. Since the Palestinians are currently weak and divided, the temptation for the administration will be to tacitly tolerate Mr. Netanyahu's position and focus on Israeli negotiations with Syria, which could benefit U.S. interests even if they don't succeed.

The problem with that course is that it could deliver a fatal blow to the two-state solution, which most Israelis recognize as the only way to preserve a democratic Jewish state. As outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert understood, the time for that solution may be running out. It is vital that the United States and European governments insist on Israeli acceptance of it -- just as they have done with Palestinian governments -- and that they publicly oppose actions that could undermine it, such as settlement expansion. If that creates tension between the United States and Israel in the short run, the result may be productive. Israelis -- starting with Mr. Netanyahu -- need to get the message that acceptance of a two-state solution has become a prerequisite for normal relations with the United States.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company