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Netanyahu owes Obama big time

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Netanyahu,Obamaby MJ Rosenberg

First this: An amazing account of what President Obama did for Israel last week has just come to light. The president personally, without consultation with Congress, intervened to save six Israeli lives. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu praised the president in a speech in Israel on September 10:

"I want to use this opportunity to thank US President Barack Obama. I requested his assistance at a decisive - I would even say fateful - moment. He said he would do everything possible, and this is what he did. He activated all of the United States' means and influence - which are certainly considerable. I believe we owe him a special debt of gratitude."

And, by coincidence, this is a good moment to repay that debt.

This is beginning to look like one of the worst periods in Israel's history.

The Turkish government has essentially broken relations with Israel over Netanyahu's refusal to apologise for storming the Mavi Marmara relief ship and killing nine Turkish nationals in the process. Ordinary Egyptians (not the government) attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing all of its personnel to return home to Israel. And the Palestinians, having despaired of achieving anything in negotiations with Israel under current conditions, are taking their case to the United Nations, where an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly will endorse Palestinian statehood, even though Israel will still control the territory of the new state.

A perfect storm

Each of these events, standing alone, would be catastrophic for Israel. In combination, they create a perfect storm, one whose force can only be kept at bay by the US government. But our government is unwilling to do what will ultimately help Israel if it means publicly opposing Netanyahu in an election year.

That sounds counter-intuitive. Politicians always want to give Israel whatever it wants in an election year. But this time around, standing with Israel's leader does not mean supporting Israel simply because it is he who, more than anyone else, is responsible for the tsunami heading towards his county's shores.

He is the one who ended negotiations with the Palestinians by refusing to accede to Obama's request for a settlement freeze. (Palestinians rightly refuse to negotiate while the land they are negotiating over is being gobbled up by settlers.) He is the one who refused to apologise to Turkey for killing its nationals, even after the United States devised a formula that both sides seemed happy with. Netanyahu backed down out of fear of his thuggish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. As for the Egyptians, they identify Netanyahu with the Mubarak regime, which barely raised a word of protest against the occupation of the West Bank or the strangulation of Gaza. Now the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the most critical component of Israel's security, is itself in jeopardy.

None of this happened overnight and all of it can be traced to the continuation of the 44-year-old occupation. Obama understands all of this, but when he tried to push the Israelis to start negotiations to end it once and for all, Israel's 'supporters' in America went ballistic. When Netanyahu told them to get Obama to back down "to save Israel", they did. AIPAC made sure that every member of Congress knew that they were being "scored" on the level of their support for Netanyahu. A low score meant closed checkbooks. Our president surrendered.

In that spirit, the US is opposing Palestinian statehood on Netanyahu's behalf.

But not Israel's. Israel is in big trouble and it needs allies who will help it prevail over this sea of misfortunes. It doesn't have those allies. It just has self-proclaimed supporters in the habit of telling the Israeli government whatever it wants to hear.

Accordingly, there is no one who is telling Israel - from a position of strength - that it needs to end the occupation. The United States is, once again, playing the role of Israel's enabler.

But there is another way...

Media reports indicate that the Obama administration is desperate to avoid the Palestinian statehood 

resolution from coming up for a vote at the UN later this month. What that really means is that the United States is desperate to avoid jeopardising US interests throughout the Arab and Muslim world (including our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan) by voting against the measure.

So why not vote "yes"?

The resolution simply codifies the US policy favoring a two-state solution. Because it will change nothing on the ground (the Israelis will still control all the territory), bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will still be necessary to achieve a final status agreement. The UN resolution does not substitute unilateralism for negotiation. It simply levels the playing field so that negotiations will be between two states, not one powerful state and one occupied supplicant.

Any real change on the ground requires mutual agreement by both sides on all the issues: borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, water resources, settlements, refugees. Nothing would be rammed down either side's throat because, as provided for in every significant proposal for negotiations (including all UN resolutions and the Arab League Initiative), every change in the status quo must be mutually agreed upon.

So what's the problem?

The problem is that the United States has promised Netanyahu to veto the resolution in the Security Council. (The Palestinians might opt for the General Assembly, where they are likely to prevail, but actual recognition as a state can only be conferred by the Security Council).

But how about this?

The administration tells Israel and the Palestinians that we will vote "yes" in the Security Council (enabling passage) if the resolution includes language recognising Israel as a Jewish state. This is a new and superfluous condition that the Israeli right has come up with recently that threatens to destroy any possibility of an agreement. Palestinians see this demand for what it is: Moving the goal post. For the Israeli right, however, demanding recognition not just as Israel but "as a Jewish state", represents their last-ditch condition to block peace if agreement is reached on everything else.

In fact, it is no big deal. Israel is going to be a Jewish state (unless, of course, the two-state solution is replaced by the one-state solution) no matter what it's called. Palestinians know that.

Any Palestinian fear that "Jewish state" language will jeopardise the rights of Palestinian Israelis can itself be addressed within the UN resolution. It can include language echoing the Balfour Declaration, which called for a Jewish state with the caveat that it be "clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine."

If the Palestinians agreed to the "Jewish state" formulation, the United States would not only be free to vote for the resolution but might be able to convince Israel to vote for it as well. And we would be well on the way to implementation of the two-state solution.

Netanyahu, for his part, owes Obama big time. How about, for once, giving the United States a break? Not to mention Israel.

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Media Matters Action Network.

A version of this article was previously published on Foreign Policy Matters.


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