Thursday, May 26, 2011

Israel and the US - Realizing the Possible

There's a lot to be said about Israel and the US, about Netanyahu and Obama.  But a lot of that tends to wander off into the weeds.  Before even beginning the discussion, there are two key points to keep uppermost in mind.  First, both Netanyahu and Obama are first and foremost professional politicians.  That is, they became the political leadership of their respective nations by winning democratic elections, and whatever intentions they have for retaining those leadership positions are dependent upon maintaining a functional majority within their constituencies.  The second thing to remember is that the relationship is premised, at it's very core, on a set of asymmetries that control and define it.  And the primary asymmetry is that Obama has NO ability to influence Israeli policy, but through the efforts of the lobbies, primarily AIPAC, Netanyahu has the ability to directly affect American policy through the US Congress.

The entire basis for the relationship, and any rough patches it may hit, is rooted in this key asymmetry.  Since Obama cannot influence Israeli policy, his only option for trying to effect events in the Middle East is through American policy.   But he lacks the ability to make changes in American policy without both being thwarted by Congress and putting his political coalition, and thus his chances for re-election, at risk.  Of course, it is also true that Netanyahu is rigidly constrained by his political coalition, which drives him to take the very actions that create friction with the United States, but unlike Obama, it is not clear that, given broad political freedom of action, he would do anything substantially different.

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It's ultimately easy to see how Likud's maximalist position on negotiations is inevitably destructive to Israel.  A first-grader could clearly understand that the only alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution.  It's really no more complicated than that.  And in a one state solution, either Israel grants citizenship to the Palestinians, ultimately becoming Palestine itself through the inexorable combination of demographics and politics, or Israel does NOT grant citizenship to her non Jewish residents, resulting in a de facto apartheid state that will be an international pariah, subject to increasing international political and economic pressure until the apartheid state collapses, resulting in Israel becoming Palestine.

This, more than anything else, is what informs us that Netanyahu will continue to espouse a hard line on the West Bank and Gaza, continuing settlement expansion while threatening and occasionally attacking his neighbors in the region.  No matter what he truly believes, he knows that any other course will break up his coalition and thus he would lose his position of power.  So, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it is pointless to try to encourage or even coerce Israel to change their policies.  It would require an act of political suicide, and if we know anything about Bibi, it's that he's a survivor.  So, since the question is no longer "What should Israel do?" (if it ever really was), and the Palestinians seem to have settled on their own course of action (unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State), the only remaining variable is what the United States will do.

Prior to the 2012 elections, we can expect the Obama administration to toe the line on Mid-East policy, hewing closely to the goals and desires of the Likudniks in power and their proxies in the Congress.  As long as the calculation is that a hard line against the Palestinian cause results in the best political outcome in American national elections, the Israeli leadership can expect unlimited and unquestioning support from Washington DC.  The more interesting question is what happens AFTER the election.

The US will explicitly veto Palestinian statehood in the UNSC in September, and as time goes by world opinion of Israel and the brutal mis-treatment of a stateless, powerless Palestinian people will increasingly harden.  By the time he is elected to a second term, Obama will be the only real ally Israel has left, in a region still reeling from the political changes brought about by the 'Arab Spring'.  With his second Presidential term, Obama's political career will be at an end and he will be considering his legacy.  Meanwhile, global opprobrium for Israel will be higher, and international political pressure for some kind of justice for the Palestinian people will be at its peak.  The newly democratic Arab nations, along with those old despots who only survived by realizing they have a responsibility to their people, will find common cause in demanding an end to the occupation.

The Israeli occupation is obviously unstable, and unsustainable.  The Palestinians WILL have a homeland at some point, either alongside a Jewish Israel or replacing it.  While it would make sense to reach an equitable solution sooner rather than later, political realities lead us to the conclusion that the best case is the status quo begins to change in 2013.  And it certainly could be longer.  But the balance of power is inexorably shifting, and the political and economic realities in play all mitigate against unfettered American and Israeli power.  The calendar is the only ally the Palestinians really need.

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