Obama imposing a Palestinian state
By Victor Kotsev
"US President Barack Obama's demands during his meeting with Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu last Tuesday point to an intention to impose a permanent
settlement on Israel and the Palestinians in less than two years," the Israeli
daily, Ha'aretz, wrote on Monday. We may draw a similar conclusion from
analyses such as the one by Tony Karon in Asia Times Online. 
United States-Israel rifts have widened to the point where the BBC recently
reported that the US would "seriously consider abstaining" if the United
Nations Security Council were to vote on a resolution on Jerusalem (presumably
against Israel). US officials promptly denied the report, but in any case, the
US is pushing
extraordinarily hard a literal interpretation of "the 1967 border". This is a
strong indicator that Obama might secretly hope to impose a solution.
Last December, American officials spoke of a timeframe of two years until the
creation of a Palestinian state. At that point, it seemed like an unrealistic
hope, but so did the healthcare overhaul until recently. A bilateral compromise
among Israelis and Palestinians appears now less likely than ever; however,
Obama's head-on collision with the Israeli government, coupled with his open
support of a new, moderate and more efficient Palestinian leadership (that of
the technocrat Prime Minister Salam Fayyad), has increased the likelihood of
The Obama administration might try to use Israel's dependence on the US
(especially in the UN Security Council) to force the Israelis to agree on a
version of the Arab Peace Initiative, and lead a chorus of condemnation against
whoever drops the towel. Such a public relations sleight of hand is
characteristic of Obama and has been extremely effective on the domestic front.
While the question remains, whether it will be effective foreign policy-wise,
the healthcare bill is more than just a precedent: it significantly boosted
Obama's position. "A vote like this will define the prevailing media narrative
on the Obama administration: Come Monday the US president will be seen as
either brilliant or bungling," wrote the Foreign Policy magazine two days
before the congress vote. "This narrative is going to extend beyond healthcare
to other major issues, including foreign policy."
So far, Obama's pressure on Netanyahu has supported the Palestinians on a few
key demands: Jerusalem, settlements and dismantling checkpoints. The lack of
proportionality (at least in terms of overt gestures, the Americans demanded
much less from the Palestinians) raises questions about Obama's impartiality,
and the Israelis were quick to complain. "You could say that Obama is the
greatest disaster for Israel - a strategic disaster," an anonymous Netanyahu
confidant told leading Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot.
It is true that what we hear from the American administration sounds much
closer to what Fayyad is saying than to what Netanyahu is saying; even the
timeframe of two years was borrowed straight out of a plan announced by the
Palestinian prime minister last summer. At the same time, however, if all goes
to plan, Obama would be pushing on Israel some of the more palatable conditions
that Palestinians would ever offer: Fayyad's reputation is that of a moderate,
perhaps the most sound moderate Palestinian leader on the ground.
Moreover, a number of analysts from both the Israeli and the Palestinian side
have argued that of the two core issues (Jerusalem and refugees), Jerusalem is
more important to the Palestinians, whereas the Jewish nature of Israel
(threatened by the potential absorption of millions of Palestinian refugees) is
more of an existential priority to the Israelis.
A UN Security Council resolution proclaiming the existence of a Palestinian
state including the Israeli West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem might
appear like a colossal reverse for Israel, but it is certainly less bad than
another major alternative to the failing peace process: the dissolution of the
Palestinian Authority (PA) and a civil-rights campaign on the part of the
Palestinians to integrate into Israeli society.
This path would also pose an existential challenge to the Jewish nature of
Israel, and is recently being advocated by an increasing number of prominent
Palestinian public figures. Last month, the chief negotiator of the PA, Saeb
Erekat, suggested that the Palestinians should dismantle the PA and "develop
credible alternatives to the traditional two-state solution, such as a
one-state solution or a bi-national state".
In light of all this, Obama's vision of justice in this case appears to be in
line with what he might do as a community organizer arbitrating a neighborhood
dispute: give each what they absolutely can't live without, and persuade them
they can live without what you can't give them.  A few prominent Israeli
voices also picked up on the well-intentioned nature of the American president:
in an opinion piece for Yedioth Ahronot titled "Obama is pro-Israel", for
example, the former Israeli consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas, argued
that "the price required of Israel is not genuinely high and does not undermine
its vital interests".
It is an entirely different question if a tough community organizer-style Obama
approach would be as successful as it might be well intentioned; there's a lot
that can go wrong on the international level that is less likely to be an issue
in a domestic dispute. Nevertheless, there's something for Israel in Obama's
"tough love", even in case things go wrong.
Most importantly, despite UN Security Council resolutions' legally binding
status, there is little direct enforcing that can happen against a (widely
believed to be) nuclear power. An economic or military boycott would perhaps
resound, but it is unclear how far Obama would be able to go before being
stonewalled by congress: last week, 337 representatives, or roughly three
quarters of the house, signed a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton expressing their support of the Jewish state.
Israel could find any number of convenient excuses - or none at all - to reap
all the benefits of the existence of a Palestinian state while refusing to
surrender key territories. If Netanyahu were serious about his resolve to keep
Jerusalem and chunks of the West Bank, a Palestinian declaration of
independence would in fact be good news for him. Last November, he already
threatened "one-sided Israeli measures" (read annexation of territories) in
A UN Security Council resolution backing a unilateral Palestinian declaration
of statehood would most likely serve as a legal cause for war between the new
state and Israel, but it's not a war it can win. It is hardly even conceivable
that things will go as far as violence: most likely, the Palestinians will keep
the internationally recognized rights, and Israel will keep the land. The whole
thing will turn into yet another territorial dispute where the plaintiff is
hopelessly weaker than the defendant.
In a few years, once Obama is gone, the US will forget all about Fayyad and the
Palestinians (just like it has abandoned countless other temporary allies), and
will become engulfed in other, more pressing problems. The rest of the
international community will follow suit: even the Arab states don't care
nearly as much about the Palestinians as they profess to. Given enough time,
facts on the ground will truly become facts on the ground.
Finally, a military threat might not even be necessary in order to win further
concessions from the Palestinians. If the present is any indicator, a
Palestinian state that comes into existence will face daunting challenges,
including lack of territorial contiguity, crumbling infrastructure,
dysfunctional institutions (rampant corruption), political strife (the West
Bank belongs to the PA, Gaza to Hamas), and an ever more serious water crisis
(which, in Gaza, may soon be irreversible due to permanent damage to the
It is hard to imagine that Palestine can prosper - or even survive - without
cooperating with the Israelis (who, among other things, have important
technological know-how such as salt-water distillation and irrigation
technologies). Moreover, it is easy to imagine Israel doing its best to
exasperate the Palestinian problems in the absence of a compromise (for example
by denying the Palestinians water rights).
Not only is it likely that newly-hatched Palestine would be quickly brought
down to its knees economically and forced to swallow its pride, but it may even
be that such an outcome would eventually spur Arab residents of East Jerusalem
to vote in favor of joining Israel in a hypothetical referendum designed to
bolster the Israeli claim to the city.