New space for pressure on Likud

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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The election win last week of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party has disappointed many observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who hoped a win by the center-left Zionist Union might restart moribund peace talks and mend the increasingly fraying relationship between Israel and the United States.

Netanyahu's win does, however, present a hidden opportunity that if realized would truly advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Netanyahu's words and actions since the early 1990s have finally put into sharp focus the de facto reality in Israeli and the occupied Palestinian territories, namely that the Israeli right-wing has absolutely no intention of withdrawing from an inch of occupied Palestinian land, much less midwifing the birth of a Palestinian state. The opportunity this presents is in an overdue fundamental realigning of U.S. Israel-Palestine policy with U.S. national interests and the international community.

It is important to stress here that this is not advocacy for a shift in policy away from Israel or a diminishing of the military and strategic U.S.-Israel alliance. Israel remains and will continue to be a valuable ally for the United States in the Middle East. Rather, it is a shift away from the automatic knee-jerk support for right-wing Israeli government policies that have become increasingly damaging to the prospect of a two-state solution, to the image of the U.S. around the world, to U.S. national interests, and to Israel itself.

The need for this realignment became manifestly obvious last week when, after years of barely paying lip service to the major U.S. foreign policy objective of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu finally came clean and rejected that framework.

Less than 48 hours before the Israeli election, Netanyahu definitively rejected the U.S.-sponsored peace process and established U.S. policy by announcing that he would not allow a Palestinian state to be created if he were re-elected. After his election win, Netanyahu attempted to retract his statement, a retraction that was soundly rejected by U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, who said, "Certainly, the prime minister's comments from a few days ago called into question his commitment to [the two-state solution]. ... We believe he changed his position. We can't forget about those comments."

Psaki's comments were taken a step further by White House spokesperson Josh Earnest, who hinted that in light of Netanyahu's "no Palestinian state" vow, the United States may no longer offer its automatic support for Israel in the international arena.

"Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations had been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome," he said, adding: "Now our ally in these talks [Israel] has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means we need to reevaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do moving forward."

Earnest was also critical of comments Netanyahu made against Israel's Arab voters when Netanyahu warned that "Arab voters are going in droves to the polls" with the help of "left-wing" activists.

"The United States and this administration is deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens," Earnest told reporters. "It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together."

Netanyahu's policies have not only damaged Israeli relations with the United States but have also widened the fissures within the Jewish-American community over continuously expanding Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens, and the acceptable parameters of dissent from Israeli government policies.

While most observers don't expect Netanyahu's victory to weaken the personal and emotional connection American Jews have with Israel, most American Jews are liberal and deeply involved in advocating for civil rights, and squaring the circle of support for a right-wing, anti-Arab, pro-settlement Netanyahu government with their liberal beliefs has become increasingly difficult.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, an association of 862 American synagogues, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press that rejecting a Palestinian state "flies in the face of every demographic study of American Jewry and what aligns with their values."

The World Union for Progressive Judaism, which represents the liberal Reform Movement, the largest branch of Judaism in the U.S., was equally critical of Netanyahu's comments on Israeli Arab voters, saying in a statement: "No public figure should lament fellow citizens exercising their right to vote freely, expressing themselves openly, and peacefully in accordance with the values of a democracy."

What might a U.S. realignment of policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look like in the near future? Fundamentally, this would mean a U.S. stance on international resolutions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is more in line with the international community's stance.

In the past, the U.S. has run critical interference for Israel on such resolutions. Late last year, the U.S. quietly quashed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank within three years. In February 2011, President Barack Obama exercised his first Security Council veto to strike down a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory even though the Security Council's other 14 members supported the resolution.

Instead, the U.S. might now adopt "a more international route," according to Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the center-left, pro-Israel group J Street. In an interview with Politico, Ben-Ami said: "I do think the administration is going to look very closely at the possibility of either joining, or at least not blocking an internationally backed move at the U.N. to restate the parameters for ending the conflict."

Another diplomatic option would be for the U.S. to expend less political capital opposing growing momentum within the European Union to impose sanctions on Israel for its settlement activity. A leaked yearly EU report on Jerusalem, prepared jointly every year by the heads of mission of the European countries represented in Jerusalem, calls for a series of potential punitive measures targeting extremist settlers and settlement product. The report describes the emergence of a "vicious cycle of violence ... increasingly threatening the viability of the two-state solution," which it says has been stoked by the continuation of "systematic" settlement building by Israel in "sensitive areas" of Jerusalem.

It has become manifestly obvious that the knee-jerk support the United States has granted Israel has not turned out well for either nation. It has only enabled the most reactionary forces in Israeli politics and injected the issue of Israel into the bitter U.S. partisan debate. With Israel's reputation souring among Democrats, if supporting Israel becomes too identified with the Republicans, it will be the end of the bipartisan "special relationship" with the United States.

Whatever course of action the U.S. chooses, a new Israeli coalition government made up of Likud and an assortment of smaller parties even further to the right must result in a needed and correct readjustment of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is first and foremost consistent with the U.S. national interest and foreign policy objective of the establishment of a Palestinian state within the framework of a two-state solution.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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