I suppose it is no secret to faithful readers of this page that I'm no great fan of the Obama administration's Middle East policy. At the very least, the administration has been remarkably naïve about the potential for negotiations leading to a viable peace at this point in time. And that naivete derives in large part from an overly great focus on drawing lines on the map and insufficient attentiveness to Israel's security needs in the event that a Palestinian state ever came into existence. But let us not further belabor points already made many times in the past.
So wherefore the question posed by the title? President Obama is president of the United States of America. Nothing in his job description requires him to be more solicitous of the security and well-being of State of Israel than are its leading politicians. Any kind of peace agreement would certainly be good for American interests, especially if it was one largely initiated by Israel. Then even if it blew up in Israel's face, it would not be Obama's fault but rather whatever Israeli leader happened to be in power at the time of the signing of the peace treaty. In short, President Obama deserves to be judged far more liberally on matters of Israeli interests than would reckless Israeli politicians.
We have been down this road before. It was Prime Minister Ehud Barak who convinced President Bill Clinton to convene the 2000 Camp David summit. Clinton was not at all sure that the time was ripe for final status negotiations, but Barak told him that he would make Arafat an offer that the latter could not refuse. According to reports prior to Camp David, Barak was prepared to offer the Palestinians at least 90% of Judea and Samaria and accept 100,000 Palestinian "refugees" into Israel, even though he had been told by the head of military intelligence that Arafat would refuse to sign an end-to-hostitility agreement.
Peace, Barak explained patiently to less brilliant individuals, would have to wait until future generations, and it was therefore unreasonable to expect the Palestinians to remove calls for Israel's destruction from their textbooks. Nevertheless it made sense to hand over most of the West Bank to the Palestinians to motivate them to act responsibility and begin the process of reconciliation.
Well, it's a theory. Perhaps right; perhaps wrong. But you would have to be as conceited as Barak to contemplate betting your country's entire existence on your theory. But I digress. The point I wish to make is that responsibility for Camp David would have rested with Barak and not with Bill Clinton who was only along for the ride and the hope of a Nobel Peace Prize.
TODAY, WE READ IN THE ISRAELI PRESS on a nearly daily basis that one senior Labor Party official or another is demanding that the Party withdraw from the governing coalition over the lack of progress in the "peace process." Opposition leader Tzipi Livni – she of overweaning ambition and limited intelligence – went even further. She appeared together with Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad for an ABC News interview, in which the two echoed one another in claiming that Netanyahu's coalition cannot make peace.
Livni criticized Netanyahu for not having complied with the American government request for a further settlement freeze. "In choosing between more buildings or making peace, I prefer to make peace," said Livni, demonstrating the keen insight for which she is famous. She seems not to have noticed that the government never rejected the American request. Rather the Americans withdrew it when they realized that a further settlement freeze offered no hope of breaking the current stalemate.
The only thing Netanyahu's government ever did was ask for the Americans to put their proposal in writing. The latter were reluctant to do so, for the simple reason that they had no intention of keeping any promises made, and it's harder to break promises when they are in writing. (Though it is not so hard as one might think. My friend Avi Shafran now informs me that the American government is not bound by presidential letters – such as President Bush's April 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon -- unless they are embodied in official treaties ratified by the Senate, and even if given in exchange for hard political capital – in Sharon's case the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.)
But the most striking thing about Livni's comment is the implicit assumption that if Israel would just stop any building in Judea and Samaria and Eastern Jerusalem that somehow peace would be at hand. That is the assumption made by all critics of Israel, but it cannot bear scrutiny. Livni acts as if she has not heard PA chairman Abbas's new "no's": no land swaps; no concession with respect to the right of return; no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Or else she doesn't think that they are serious. Well maybe they are not serious, but one would have to go back a long distance in a time machine to find the last Palestinian concession of some claimed "right."
Already by 2000, Martin Peretz summed up the Oslo Process as: "Israel committed itself to an extended sequence of negotiation and concession, while what was expected of the Palestinians was mostly that they show up and mutter empty formulas of reassurance." After a few rounds of such a process, in which the presumption is always in favor of splitting things down the middle, the party that is making the concessions finds itself with virtually nothing.
The Labor Party politicians demanding that Labor withdraw from the government make the same mistakes. First, they place the onus for lack of progress on Israel. For if the blame did not belong to Israel why should they demand to be uncoupled from the current coalition. Again, the constant Palestinian rejectionism fails to make a dent in their consciousness. They forget that one party making peace is like trying to clap with one hand.
Second, they equate the peace process with peace itself – a proposition that was debatable perhaps in 1993, but has been unsustainable for at least a decade. And finally, by suggesting that Israel cannot survive without that process going "forward" to wherever, they sow despair.
Certainly peace is an ultimate desideratum for Israel, but we have been living without it for 62 years and will continue to do so if we have no choice. Far more dangerous than the absence of peace, and even the weariness that goes with that absence, is allowing one's yearning for peace to cause one to believe in false solutions. A dangerous fantasy is much worse than living in a less than optimal reality.
It is hard to know how much of the rhetoric of Livni and the Labor malcontents is merely being employed for political purposes and how much is merely delusional. But in either case the politicians in question are certainly far more culpable than is President Obama for parallel misunderstandings.
This piece was written before the anti-coalition Labor ministers were exiled from the cabinet. It is offered now to suggest how welcome was that move.