A New Netanyahu

September 02, 2010 12:14 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

I am trying hard to be optimistic about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were kicked off at the White House on September 1st.

It's not that I believe that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants to exchange the territories for peace (or even that he will ever really freeze settlements).  It's not that I believe that President Mahmoud Abbas can deliver the Palestinians either (he does not speak for Hamas or even for much of his own Fatah party).

My sole reason for optimism is that I cannot imagine that President Barack Obama would have initiated this effort if it was doomed to failure.  Why bother? 

Between the economic situation (America's #1 problem, by far), the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the seeming Republican surge, he has more than enough on his plate without dragging Israelis and Palestinians off to negotiations that neither party is enthusiastic about.

Netanyahu is more enthusiastic than Abbas, perhaps because he wants Obama to look more favorably on an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, should he decide to order one.  He could be playing nice now for gains later.  Plus, he is certainly not averse to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that would end the conflict while allowing Israel to keep most of the territories.  If he could pull that off, he'd be lionized back home.

Abbas, for his part, probably won't accept anything less than the 22% of historic Palestine that is encompassed by Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  He believes that conceding 78% of historic Palestine to Israel (i.e., Israel prior to 1967) in exchange for ending the conflict forever is a pretty good deal for both sides.

He also looks at the Egyptian precedent.  President Sadat offered peace in exchange for 100% of the Sinai Peninsula (also captured in the '67 war).  When Israel offered 90% and then 98%, he said no.  He insisted on getting all his territory back.

And, with President Jimmy Carter's backing, he got it.  The result: not a single shot has been fired in anger on or near the Israeli-Egyptian border for over 30 years.  

I don't expect Abbas to ever agree to 90% or even 99.9% either.  He wants the full 100% of the 22%.  The good news is that he would concede the so-called settlement blocs adjacent to Israel in exchange for other unpopulated areas inside Israel, just so he can tell his people that he got his 100% (of 22%).

It is hard to imagine Netanyahu going for that kind of two-state deal anytime soon.  On the other hand, his determination to preserve Israel as a Jewish state may impel him to divest himself of the areas where Palestinians constitute an overwhelming majority.  If he doesn't, one of his successors will — or accept the transformation of Israel from a Jewish state to a state where Israelis and Palestinians share sovereignty.  There is no third alternative (at least, not one without mass carnage).

But back to my reason for limited optimism.

It is that President Obama is aware of all the things I just wrote and much, much more.  Nonetheless, he is investing his energy and his prestige in this effort.  He must believe that it has a chance of success. 

Unfortunately, he cannot achieve an agreement without putting pressure on both sides, and particularly on Netanyahu who, after all, holds all the cards (plus all the territory).

But Netanyahu knows that if Obama applies pressure on him, the President will outrage even his Democratic allies in Congress.  Lobby-led Representatives and Senators (Democrats as much as Republicans) will oppose asking Netanyahu to do anything he does not want to do. (Count on the donors, the lobby and the Israeli embassy to organize the opposition.)

This applies to any territorial concession Netanyahu might be asked to make.  It even applies to an Israeli attack on Iran which, should it come, would have the enthusiastic support of some of the most liberal, anti-war Democrats (let alone Republicans).  That is certainly true just prior to an election, but it is also true when an election is two years away.  The lobby owns this issue, not the President.

And that is why, in the end, we have to hope that Netanyahu has finally come to understand that the occupation poses an existential threat to Israel as a Jewish state.

If Netanyahu has actually come around to that understanding (as Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert seemed to), it is possible — even probable — that progress will be made.

After all, Netanyahu can deliver the lobby and, with it, Congress. 

It may be true that only a hard-liner like Netanyahu can achieve peace by ending the occupation.  "After all," it is said, "it took a Nixon to go to China."  The difference might be that Nixon wanted to go to China.  Does Netanyahu want peace?

The first sign will come on September 26th when he either will, or won't, say "yes" to extending the partial settlement freeze.  Either way, we'll have our answer.

If he is serious about these negotiations, Obama will tell Netanyahu that "no" is not an option.