Correction: An earlier version of this column referenced a statement by a “senior defense official” accompanying Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Jerusalem last week. In fact, the “senior defense official” made his remark during a trip with Gates to Tel Aviv. This version has been corrected.
So far what some are calling the Arab Spring has brought Israel the first terrorist bombing in Jerusalem in seven years and the first significant missile attacks from the Gaza Strip in two years. And that, for the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, is likely to be the easy part.
The hard part will be managing Barack Obama.
Netanyahu and the Israeli army know how to deal with Palestinian terrorist attacks. Their tanks and planes have been pounding targets in Gaza, and inflicting considerably more casualties and damage than have been caused by the rockets. The Israelis believe both the Jerusalem bombing and most of the missile strikes were carried out by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a small militia controlled by Iran. Gaza’s ruler, Hamas, is thought not to want a wider conflict, much less a repeat of Israel’s devastating 2008 invasion.
So barring a miscalculation by one side or the other, or a missile that wipes out an Israeli school, Netanyahu is likely to avoid major hostilities with Hamas. But what of the Obama administration and its renewed calls for “bold action” to revive negotiations on Palestinian statehood? For Netanyahu, that — more than a new Egyptian government or an offensive by Iran’s allies — may be the biggest short-term challenge emerging from the Middle East’s upheaval.
A reasonable person might conclude from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria et al., that the Middle East’s deepest problems have nothing to do with Israel and that the Obama administration’s almost obsessive focus on trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement in its first two years was misplaced. But Obama isn’t one of those persons. Instead, like several American presidents before him, he seems to have concluded that the ideal segue from the latest Arab crisis is a new attempt to pressure Israel into accepting a quick march to Palestinian statehood.
A “senior defense official” accompanying Defense Secretary Robert Gates on his visit to Tel Aviv last week put it this way: “The Israelis have a very deep strategic interest in getting out in front of the wave of populism that is sweeping the region . . . showing progress on the peace track with the Palestinians would put them in a much better position for where the region’s likely to be six months or a year from now.”
That’s true, of course — in theory. In practice, Netanyahu’s problem is twofold. First, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has no interest in negotiating with him, and never has. The 76-year-old Abbas has repeatedly shrunk from committing himself to the painful concessions he knows would be needed for Palestinian statehood. What’s more, he has despised and distrusted the Israeli prime minister since Netanyahu’s first term in office in the 1990s. Rather than bargain with Israel, Abbas seems inclined to go along with his aides’ plan to seek a U.N. declaration of Palestinian statehood at the next General Assembly in September.
This might not be so troubling for Netanyahu, who is also not eager to make concessions for a peace deal, if not for his second problem: Obama continues to believe that Israel’s government, and not the Palestinians, is the primary obstacle to peace.
The president made his mind-set clear from the beginning of his administration, when he chose to begin his diplomacy by demanding a complete freeze on Israeli settlement activity — a condition Abbas had never set but which he quickly adopted as his own. In a meeting with American Jewish leaders at the White House this month, Obama indicated that he hadn’t changed his mind. Abbas, he insisted, was ready to establish a Palestinian state. The problem was that Israel had not made a serious territorial offer.
Netanyahu feels compelled to counter the Palestinian offensive at the United Nations, which his defense minister, Ehud Barak, says could turn into “an anti-Israeli diplomatic tsunami.” For that he will need the support of Obama. So Netanyahu has committed himself to deliver what could be the most-anticipated speech in Israel’s history — an address to the U.S. Congress in May in which he is to lay out a new “vision” for peace.
To satisfy Abbas and Obama, Netanyahu will have to promise a significant concession. In the words of the Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar, “he will have to utter, with his own mouth, the magic words” — that a Palestinian state will be based on Israel returning to its 1967 borders. But if he does that, Netanyahu will infuriate most of his cabinet and probably cause the collapse of his coalition. His supporters believe he will also give up Israel’s best negotiating chip — territory — before the real bargaining even begins.
Netanyahu felt comfortable enough with the Gaza mini-war and the state of security in Jerusalem last week to carry on with a planned trip to Russia. The coming showdown with Obama will require his full attention.