Jerusalem—What happens when the godfather makes you an offer that you can, in fact, refuse? Veteran Israeli politicians expect the Obama administration to give Israel an ultimatum later this year to make peace with the Palestinian Authority—that is, with a political entity that is kept alive on the West Bank by an American-trained militia and the Israeli Army, and that is headed by a prime minister, Salam Fayyad, whose party won 2 percent of the vote in the last elections and who faces a constituency two-thirds of which tells pollsters that it doesn’t want any deal with a Jewish state.
Washington officially denies plans to impose a settlement but has shown Israel—the instruments of torture—through extensive leaks to the press, as described in late April in a report in the London Telegraph.
Obama’s putative deal would divide Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital; displace perhaps 140,000 Israelis living on the West Bank (including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman); and leave Israel with what the Israelis call “Auschwitz borders”: a bulge of territory pointing into central Israel fourteen miles from the Mediterranean. The deal would give Palestinian rocketeers on West Bank hilltops a clear shot at Israel’s largest cities and major airports. And it would do this in the context of an entirely feckless American effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will say No with overwhelming support from the Israeli public. The crisis in American-Israeli relations will dwarf any past disagreements, including Eisenhower’s 1956 order to Israel, France, and Britain to give up the Suez Canal, and Kissinger’s wrangle, during the 1970s, over the Israeli occupation of the Sinai. These differences involved security matters at Israel’s periphery; the present issue goes to the heart of the Jewish state, the integrity of its capital, and the defensibility of its borders.
The only question, observers here believe, is in what form Obama’s ultimatum will come. The likelihood is that the United States will not deliver an open threat directly, but will leave the dirty work to the European Community or some other agency less friendly to Israel. When the present “proximity talks” break down some time in the fall—as they inevitably will—the European Community can be counted on to offer a resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. If the United States fails to veto the resolution—as it has vetoed every similar resolution in the past—the Security Council will go on to set criteria for Palestinian statehood, and perhaps 150 countries will recognize a putative Palestinian state within the 1967 “Green Line” and denounce Israel as a foreign occupier.
Short of voting for a Palestinian state, the Security Council—absent an American veto—also might revise its Resolution 242, adopted after the 1967 War. This resolution explicitly gives Israel the right to “defensible borders,” which are difficult to confuse with the 1967 Green Line.
In the meantime, to signal what will happen if Israel fails to comply, W
ashington is withdrawing its support for Israel in international bodies a notch down from the Security Council. On May 8, for example, the Associated Press reported that—for the first time, and reflecting the conspicuous absence of an American veto—the June meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency will focus on Israel’s nuclear weapons.
President Obama and his cabinet have argued that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help sort out the rest of the Muslim world; most recently, through Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on April 27: “Heretofore, the lack of progress in the peace process has provided political ammunition to our adversaries in the Middle East and in the region, and that progress in this arena will enable us not only to perhaps get others to support the peace process, but also support us in our efforts to try and impose effective sanctions against Iran.” The idea that Iran would give up its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons if Israel were to stop building apartments in East Jerusalem seems fanciful to Israeli analysts.
If the Obama administration gives Israel an order to settle with the Palestinians, either directly or through inaction at the Security Council, the effort may well blow up in the administration’s face. After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas brushed aside the American-trained and American-armed troops of the Palestinian Authority. What prevents Hamas from doing the same on the West Bank? Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad is a technocrat who spent his career at the World Bank and was imposed by Western donors who were tired of Fatah’s stealing the lion’s share of foreign aid. Fayyad’s party received 2 percent of the vote in the last election, which is to say that he has no popular base.
Fayyad is kept in power by the Israeli Army and by a few thousand Palestinian security forces deployed by the U.S. under General Keith Dayton. The U.S. has spent $100 million on the project. Dayton ultimately intends to train an army of 30,000, although only a few are in place.
A likely Israeli response to an American ultimatum would be to call the Americans’ bluff, withdraw Israeli forces from the West Bank, and let Hamas make short work of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. How General Dayton’s little army would respond is unclear, but it is probable that it would prove just as unreliable as the Fatah mercenaries who refused to fight Hamas in Gaza.
Israel is in the odd position of propping up a Potemkin village—the Fayyad administration of the Palestinian Authority—to which it is then supposed to make territorial concessions that threaten Israeli security. If Israel were to decide not to prop up the Palestinian Authority but to let it fall, the “peace process” begun in 1993 might fall apart in a matter of days. The result would be humiliation for America and its foreign policy. Israel is in no hurry to humiliate the United States—on the contrary, Israel is anxious to demonstrate that it is a reliable ally—but that is how an American ultimatum might play out.
If the Israeli Army withdraws its protection for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, General Dayton’s Palestinian irregulars may turn rogue. “The possibility that forces being trained by the US now will eventually turn on the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], using enhanced skills and equipment, is exceedingly high,” wrote David Bedein and Arlene Kushner in a 2009 study for the pro-Israeli Center for Near East Policy Research. “There is strong precedent for this, as PA security forces trained by the CIA have several times turned on Israel, in particular in 1996 and following, and again during the second intifada that began in 2000.”
Even if Israel flouts American orders—as then–Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir flouted the wishes of the first Bush administration in 1992—the United States will not sanction Israel. At most, Washington might withdraw aid, but that amounts to only 2 percent of an Israeli gross domestic product that is growing at 6 percent per year. Israel remains the most popular foreign-policy issue in American politics, with support for the Jewish state running in the 60-percent-to-70-percent range in most polls, and support for the Palestinians running in the teens.
It is hard to predict what will come out of the ensuing shambles, but the most likely result is a reduction of American influence in the region at the expense of Iran. As noted, two-thirds of Palestinians oppose a two-state solution to begin with. The failure of an all-in American effort to force a settlement probably will make a swift end to the Fayyad government and give the upper hand to Hamas in the West Bank, with increased Iranian support. The Middle East will become far more dangerous, and the most obvious loser will be the United States.
Obama’s emotionally charged campaign to reconcile America with the Muslim world will end in a train wreck. The consequences for the Democratic Party may be almost as messy. When, in February, just before Obama provoked the diplomatic crisis, the American Jewish Committee conducted its annual poll of American Jewish opinion, 55 percent of respondents approved of Obama’s handling of relations with Israel—slightly less than the 57 percent that approved of the Netanyahu government. American Jews were under the mistaken impression that Washington and Jerusalem were on the same track. But 61 percent of respondents opposed any compromise on Jerusalem, and 75 percent agreed with the statement, “The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel.”
The outrage among Obama’s erstwhile Jewish supporters, as reflected daily in Marty Peretz’ blog The Spine, on the website of The New Republic, is heightened by the sense of wounded self-esteem felt by clever people who have just been swindled. As a warning, Jewish contributors to Democratic campaigns are selectively funding Republicans, among them Mark Kirk, who is running for Obama’s Senate seat in Illinois. In several parts of the country, Democratic congressmen trying to defend Obama have been booed off the dais at meetings at traditionally liberal Reform synagogues. If the train wreck proceeds as programmed, the change in attitude within the American Jewish community could be dramatic.
David P. Goldman is senior editor of First Things.