Did Benyamin Netanyahu really take an important step forward by committing himself (sort of) to a two-state settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians? Don’t be silly. A Palestinian state that meets the conditions Bibi set -demilitarized, recognising Israel as a Jewish state and abandoning its claim on Jerusalem as its capital- would be a bantustan, not a truly independent entity. Still, so used have we become to hardline, ruthless Israeli behaviour that even this con trick is now being hailed in some western quarters as an encouraging sign that the peace process is once again a going concern. Don’t believe it; the Palestinians themselves aren’t fooled.
What Netanyahu aimed to do was play for time. The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States must have sent a ripple of disquiet through Israel’s nationalist camp. Would the days of limitless, unquestioning American economic, political and military support come to an end? If so, what then? And there was Obama, quick off the mark, dropping all sorts of heavy hints about the desirability of a halt to the construction of further settlements and -from Israel’s point of view- hobnobbing far too chummily with the Arabs. After all, no guy with the middle name Hussein had ever been taken seriously by Netanyahu and suddenly there was one he couldn’t possibly ignore. Hell, this US administration might even stop routinely vetoing anti-Israel resolutions at the Security Council! Other anxieties surfaced: America’s concern at Iran’s nuclear programme might, in time, be matched by a similar unease about Israel’s fully developed and ready-for-use nuclear arsenal. Face it: when the mushroom clouds billow upwards and humans die in their tens of thousands in the blinking of an eye, does it really matter whether the guy who dropped the bombs was wearing a white or a black hat?
So Netanyahu’s subtext consisted of a message to Obama (‘seriously Mr. President, we want nothing more than to live in peace and security with our neighbours, but you’ll understand that we have legitimate concerns, the buggers want to kill us in our beds’) and one to his own political friends (‘don’t worry boys, we’ll drag this out for as long as we can -four years, or even eight- and hope for better times and a new George W. Bush’). His less subtle message to the Palestinians -unchanged from before- was: ‘up yours buddy’.
So if Barack Obama doesn’t want to become the next in a long line of US Presidents to be defeated by the sheer intractability of the Middle East problem, here’s what I think he should do. To the Palestinians he should pledge his full, unwavering support for a fully fledged independent state, with all the trappings of proud nationhood. These must include full territorial integrity, control of their borders, a viable econonomy and a modern national defence force. Equally full and unwavering should be his support of the Iraelis’ right to a state where they can live safely without fear of attack, where they can prosper and start the process of digesting, and ultimately filing away as history, the horrors of the past. The Holocaust lies 65 years behind us and, for that reason, should no longer play a part in driving Israeli policy. Whatever dangers Israel may face in the future, annihilation isn’t one of them.
But words are cheap and pledges of support in themselves will not bring a settlement an inch closer. Without an extra something from Washington, the immovable object and the irresistible force in the Middle East will continue to grind against each other and, at regular intervals, shed each other’s blood. That extra something should be a stern warning to both sides that, from now on, America’s support no longer comes without strings attached. Actually the Palestinians know this already, they’ve been given short shrift on many occasions; it’s Israel that has so far benefited from Washington’s blank cheques. I feel that if Obama were to make clear to the protagonists that unreasonable intransigence and resorting to violence will forfeit US support and even lead to sanctions things might start moving in earnest. The removal of the word ‘unconditional’ from the language of Obama’s Middle East rhetoric will work wonders.
Something similar, of course, can be expected from this side of the Atlantic. The powerhouse that is the European Union has strong economic tools at its disposal. If the Palestinians won’t play ball, if the Israelis keep stalling, we’ll set Tony Blair on them. To you he may be a greedy, self-serving, sanctimonious squirt and utterly useless with it (I know he is to me) but in Jerusalem and Ramallah he commands great respect. Something to do with him being a recent convert to Catholicism, I believe.