Earlier this month Israel once again angered the Obama administration by approving new Jewish settlement construction on the West Bank. The Israeli move was widely condemned as yet another step in an effort to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state by building Jewish homes on land the Palestinians need for a state.
As we’ve noted, President Obama – in order to address what he deems illegitimate Israeli settlement activity – has reportedly been thinking about going along with (i.e. not order a veto of) Palestinian efforts to have the Security Council come up with a plan for final borders for Israel and a Palestinian state. And in an editorial titled “At the Boiling Point With Israel,” The New York Times demonstrated how serious the settlement situation is in this, the twilight of Mr. Obama’s presidency, during which he is firmly in “legacy” mode:
The Obama administration, with every justification, strongly condemned the action as a betrayal of the idea of a two-state solution in the Middle East. But Mr. Netanyahu obviously doesn’t care what Washington thinks, so it will be up to President Obama to find another way to preserve that option before he leaves office.
The best idea under discussion now would be to have the United Nations Security Council, in an official resolution, lay down guidelines for a peace agreement covering such issues as Israel’s security, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and borders for both states. The United Nations previously laid down principles for a peace deal In Resolution 242 (1967) and Resolution 338 (1973); a new one would be more specific and take into account current realities. Another, though weaker, option is for Mr. Obama to act unilaterally and articulate this framework for the two parties.
What is missing from this and most other analyses of the failure to negotiate a settlement is a full appreciation of Palestinian recalcitrance as the primary cause of that failure.
The Palestinians have shown time and again that they want all, or virtually all, of the West Bank with a capital in Jerusalem. This was demonstrated at Camp David and several times thereafter when Ehud Barak offered Yasir Arafat much more than he should have, surprising even President Bill Clinton. Thus, although it was indeed taken for granted in both the 1967 and 1973 resolutions that the two sides would negotiate their respective borders, the flip side is that it was not envisioned that the facts on the ground would remain static until those negotiations succeeded.
So in a perfect world the Palestinians should have every incentive to compromise in order to cut their losses occasioned by Israeli settlement building. But with most of the world, including the Obama administration, opposed to Israeli settlement activity even in the vacuum created by the failure to negotiate, the Palestinians believe they can hold out and have Israeli construction ultimately reversed.
The Obama/New York Times approach also doesn’t take into account the fact that whatever one believes his motives to be, Prime Minister Netanyahu is on record as calling for negotiations without preconditions.
And therein, of course, lies the rub. The Palestinians view their demands largely as preconditions for the negotiations rather than their results. For Israel to acquiesce would be tantamount to rendering meaningless the fact that Resolutions 242 and 338 followed two costly Israeli victories that came in self-defense against Arab armies seeking to annihilate the Jewish state. Leverage may sound like a crass term here. But it is infused with justice nonetheless.
In sum, President Obama can cause irreparable harm if the UN were to codify an imposed Mideast border blueprint. It didn’t work in the early decades of the twentieth century, as witness the current religious and cultural upheavals in several artificially formed Arab states. We can only hope the president will do the right thing and prevent yet another such reckless undertaking.