A familiar joke tells of a boy running at top speed from the railroad tracks back into town. “What’s the matter, kid?” asks a surprised fellow on the street. “There’re two trains coming right at each other up there,” the boy shouts back. “So you’re running for help?” “No, to get my brother—he never saw no train crash before.” For some sharp-tongued observers—in Israel, our Arab neighborhood, and the world media—this anecdote illustrates is a scenario that some gleefully anticipate: The newly formed government of Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, going in one direction, and the new and hopeful American administration, going in much the opposite direction, on a collision course—over the Palestinian question, the Arab Peace Initiative, relations with Syria, engagement with Iran, and other issues of diplomatic style and strategic substance.
This dramatic depiction (which, in some cases, has already been translated into avid Arab expectations for a coercive American stance) is not entirely without merit. In political temperament and outlook, the Israeli political right is not necessarily in sync with the American Democratic Party, even if the Obama Administration has so far shown a strong centrist tendency on most issues. There are aspects of Israeli policy, such as the settlements, on which even the American Jewish mainstream is uncomfortable. What has been perceived as Israeli attempts to walk away from the two-state solution ran into strong American language in support of this vision (and again, this is an issue on which most American Jewish organizations have previously taken clear positions, in line with those endorsed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush since 2002). Adding to the sense of tension were the outward signs of discomfort as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—who remains, even in the eyes of his followers, somewhat of a diamond-in-the-rough—and Senator George Mitchell came out of their first meeting at the ministry.
And yet, at closer look, the fears of some—and the hopes of others—that this collision course is inevitable do not tally with the dynamics of the special relationship, and of the evolving regional situation, which has witnessed in recent weeks the ever-sharpening break between Egypt and its allies on the one hand and the Iranian camp, particularly Hezbollah, on the other. Going issue by issue, it is safe to predict that there will be differences of outlook, but no breach—neither compliance nor defiance. In fact, it has never been in America’s interest to have Israel as an obedient client (which would have meant that the United States, not Israeli society and politics, would have become the target of all Arab expectations); nor, for that matter, to reach the point of an angry and frustrated confrontation. Neither, moreover, is a necessary outcome of the present agenda. In fact, point by point, there are sufficient areas of agreement—despite the obvious differences in preferences and perspectives—that can sustain mutual engagement in preparation for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama in Washington on May 18:
Within this complex landscape there are opportunities for cooperation as well as for conflict: It is now up to the two sides to work them out. There is no reason to assert that they cannot succeed.
- The Two-State Solution: The impression created by some media reports about Israel’s position—to some extent, a legitimate but belated echo of the political maneuvers around this issue during Netanyahu’s negotiations with Tzippi Livni—is no longer relevant. When Foreign Minister Lieberman, unchallenged (nor, for that matter, endorsed) by Netanyahu on this question, announced his rejection of the Annapolis process, he also stated that Israel is bound by the Road Map and by UNSCR 1515 (which he misquoted as 1505). This, in effect, is a commitment to the two-state solution: The very title of the Road Map defines it as a design for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. True, the new Israeli position reinstitutes the “performance-based” criteria of the Road Map, rather than the leap to the permanent-status negotiations, but if the basic requirement is to commit to the irreversibility of the idea of partition, then Israel has already agreed (or laid out the circumstances under which Netanyahu will specifically agree) that this is where the road will ultimately lead. Still, it may well be legitimate for Netanyahu to ask, not as a condition for negotiations, but as an obvious aspect of a two-state solution, that the nature of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people be as much part of the negotiations as the demand for a Palestinian identity. In fact, already something interesting has happened: Whereas, when Israel was the side that called for a two-state solution, the Palestinians saw an opportunity to pose conditions (i.e., acceptance of their version of “international legitimacy”); now that the tables have now been turned, and within careful limits, it is now Israel who can suggest certain conditions for “getting to yes.”
- The Arab Peace Initiative: Israel, of course, cannot—under any political leadership, let alone the present one—accept “as is” the text of the resolution adopted by the Arab League Summit in Beirut, 2002, a hardened version of the original “Saudi Initiative.” Neither the territorial dimension (including Jerusalem) nor the so-called “right of return” are presented in a form that Israel could live with. And yet, if seen as a point of departure for negotiations, there is much (as President Obama has said) that is useful in the API, and it is not impossible for Israel to find language that responds positively (albeit belatedly) or offers, as Ehud Barak recently suggested, an “Israeli Initiative” for region-wide talks that would give a role to Saudi Arabia and Egypt—at the head of a much wider table.
- Talks with Syria: It is not easy to have a serious and balanced discussion in Israel on the Syrian question nowadays—away from the ardent agendas that most Israelis harbor, some eager to try for peace, even at a very high price, others committed to the retention of the Golan and all that is on it. Theoretically, a hard line on Syria could once again lead to a clash with an ambitious Obama Administration, seeking to overturn the icy attitude taken toward Syria during the Bush years. In real life, however, the gap is much narrower: The Netanyahu government is at least interested in exploring the relevant options; and, on the other hand, it seems that the initial contacts with Syria undertaken by the U.S. envoys produced little by way of tangible results, and certainly no real prospect of a Syrian break with Iran, upon which the ultimate deal hinges. It will probably be the Palestinian, not the Syrian, arena in which the main efforts will be made.
- Iran: This, of necessity, will be the ultimate test of the relationship. For the time being, however, Israel is willing to “engage with the engagement” and accept the inevitability of diplomacy—as long as the game is cleverly played, backed by real leverage, and limited in duration. Those who blame Israel for warmongering miss the point: It is well understood here that the ideal solution would be a negotiated agreement with Iran to desist from nuclear armament, in return for the removal of sanctions—but it is equally true that the prospects of effective pressure would be greatly enhanced by the distant shadow of military action.