Foreign Policy Developments in Israel
Foreign Policy Developments in Israel
By Sarah Ann Haves
U.S. envoy, George Mitchell, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, April 16, 2009 for talks on the Middle East. Netanyahu claimed that the Palestinians must accept Israel as a Jewish State, and spoke of a peace deal that would be more comprehensive, involving the participation of moderate Arab states in the region. Netanyahu and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, called on the sympathy of regional players. They implied a desire to link progress on the peace process in Israel to progress on stopping the global Iranian threat.
As Netanyahu continues to evaluate the complexities of Middle East diplomacy, many analysts are already assessing how his new government will be perceived internationally. The days of calling his government “extreme right-wing” have now been replaced by a wait and see attitude by most international leaders. EU officials have stopped publicly threatening Netanyahu, refraining from expressing their views about a downgrade in relations if Israel doesn’t show interest in continuing the peace process. And, U.S. State Department officials have yet to define, publicly, what they specifically expect from Israel in future developments with the Palestinians.
It seems that Netanyahu is being given a short honeymoon period to consider his diplomatic options. We can expect the international community, led by the United States, to soon place Israel back into the foreign policy pressure cooker of “world opinion.”
Recently, I spoke to a senior foreign policy advisor whose organization has had a close association with Netanyahu and his Likud party since the mid 1990’s when Netanyahu first served as Prime Minister of Israel. Speaking to me on condition of anonymity, he offered this opinion: the Netanyahu government will continue discussions with the Palestinians, abiding by previously signed agreements. He said, “It’s clear that this administration is very energetic about advancing the bilateral peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.” He also warned, “The political process with the Palestinians will be enormously complicated if not impossible. The conditions on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) have never been so complex.”
Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza are barely speaking to each other, and are not cooperating in any significant manner. In some ways, this tension has been to Israel’s advantage. Once there is a unified Palestinian front, pressure on Israel will increase.
The new administrations, in the U.S. and Israel, are not yet coming to the Palestinian peace table with new proposals. Although more pointed in their public statements, both administrations are still in the evaluation stage.
So, while Netanyahu refuses to utter the words “two-state solution,” he seems personally willing to consider giving the Palestinians state-like conditions, if they follow through with their previous obligations. Netanyahu’s likely approach will be to offer Palestinians economic incentives to build a state. This would provide the opportunity for jobs, housing, infrastructure, and an overall better quality of life. Such promises, at this point, seem to extend only to Palestinians living in the West Bank.
But, it is unlikely that Netanyahu will make the same offer to Gaza. Gaza presents a major problem for Israel as Hamas adheres to a radical Islamic ideology; refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist; will not stop violence against the Jewish State; and has refrained from a willingness to cooperate with Israel based on past formally signed agreements with the Palestinians.
While there are Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza that would like to see Israel “disappear,” there is a perception that those living in the West Bank are more nationalistic and less radical, receiving little training, funding, or weapons from Shiite or Sunni extremists.
Iran and its proxies, along with Al Qaeda and its proxies, would like to get a foothold in the West Bank, as they may already have in Gaza. So far, Israeli defense forces, working with intelligence agents from the United States, have managed to control terrorist operations in the West Bank, keeping the unrest there to a minimum. In fact, the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is cooperating with Israel and America, cracking down on insurgents there who would like to carry out major terror attacks against Israeli civilians.
As Israeli and American foreign policy initiatives become more definitive, it will become more obvious as to whether officials from these two nations can work together. The senior policy advisor I talked to stated, “Obama and Netanyahu will work fine. They have a good chemistry, which is part of the mix. They’re both young, solution-oriented people.” In addition, he said, “Obama is clearly advancing a two-state solution. That has become the brand in the United States for every U.S. government.”
On Thursday, George Mitchell reiterated America’s commitment to a two-state solution, which would include a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish State of Israel. Mitchell added that there would be efforts toward achieving a comprehensive peace in the region … code for expectations that Israel should adapt the Arab Peace Initiative.
Previous Israeli governments, and a majority of Israel’s population, have bought into a two-state concept. But, the concept is not popular among Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition members. Netanyahu’s political base wants to see changes among the Palestinians, first, before Israel makes any more painful concessions such as land withdrawals. Already, there is tension with the Palestinians. Over the weekend, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas rejected Netanyahu’s demand that they recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
Meanwhile, indications are that Netanyahu will look for solutions to appease Mitchell and the international community in order to keep Israel from entering into diplomatic isolation. Netanyahu, and his Finance Minister, Dr. Yuval Steinitz are expected to try and convince the Obama Administration that a security and socio-economic plan must be laid out for the Palestinians as a priority for negotiations to continue at the peace table. Trying to get the Palestinians to adopt such a plan has not been a priority with other Israeli governments — including that of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The hope in Israel is that Netanyahu will convince U.S. officials to get Palestinian leaders to stop pressuring the Jewish State on the core final status issues (i.e., control of Jerusalem; and the return of so-called Palestinian refugees to Israel). That will take a lot of convincing. But, Netanyahu believes the U.S. could effectively help lay the groundwork for a free, responsible, and safe Palestinian society that has respect for the rule of law.
There have been a few preliminary meetings between the new administrations in Jerusalem and Washington. Those were meetings, from Israel’s standpoint, in which the U.S. wanted to express its urgency for being involved in the peace process, but without much substance in how to proceed. As Mitchell sets up his office in Jerusalem, with plans to visit the region every three weeks, U.S. opinions could soon turn into U.S. demands. Netanyahu’s office is trying to schedule a trip for him to visit Obama in Washington in May. During that visit it is expected that Israel’s policy review will become Israel’s foreign policy strategy communicated to the U.S. Administration.
It is also expected that Israeli politicians in the new government will see this visit as a chance to express their dissatisfaction with the way things have been handled in recent years. There’s a sense in Jerusalem that the de-legitimization of Israel’s rights has taken place because the political process has become biased and weighted in favor of the Palestinian narrative. The feeling is that Israel’s rights have been ignored, overlooked, or defamed by many in the international community. These rights, protected by international law, include the right to defensible borders, something necessary for the state of Israel to survive.
COMPLEXITIES IN FURTHERING PEACE — IRAN
The foreign policy analyst I spoke with brought up major sticking points to any peace negotiations moving forward between Israel and the Palestinians. “It is virtually impossible today, because of the destabilizing influence of Iran, and other terrorist groups throughout the West Bank and Gaza, to come to a bilateral agreement with the Palestinians,” he acknowledged.
The U.S. understands that its priority must be to get diplomatic talks underway with Iran, resulting in a swift conclusion that will bring clarity regarding Iran’s willingness to submit to international sanctions and refrain from trying to make a nuclear bomb. Israel has put the U.S. and international community on notice that it will not allow Iran to “go nuclear,” indicating that Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike, if necessary. The clock is ticking and Obama knows that Israel could “go it alone.”
Iran poses a future nuclear threat to the entire Middle East, not just Israel, and Arab countries feeling that threat also want to see stability come to the region. The Iranian nuclear threat could motivate several Arab nations to take part in a responsible strategic dialogue with Israel over peace issues.
Meanwhile, Israel has no margin for error on Iran, and leaders in Jerusalem will continue to push Washington for a more aggressive assessment on the Iranian issue. The debate continues about when Iran will have enough uranium enrichment to build a nuclear bomb. Coming up with a timetable specific to stopping Iran’s pursuit of the bomb is so urgent for Israeli leaders that they continue to meet with their American counterparts. They are seeking a mutual understanding as to when all means of diplomacy will be exhausted and military action will be seriously considered. Israel’s goal is to work with the Obama administration in achieving a greater strategic dialogue and a more unified approach to the Iranian problem.
As Iran takes on further global importance, it can be expected that the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians will only move forward in small increments. Until the Iranian “problem” is solved, both sides will be under international pressure to make changes. And, diplomats will continue to try and find solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, keeping it an active part of their foreign policy objectives.
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting from Israel on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues affecting the nation.
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