March 30, 2011 4:30 pm ET
A few weeks ago I wrote about AIPAC's newly devised strategy for the next 12 months and beyond.
The strategy is to again assert that Israel has no acceptable negotiating partner, a throwback to its modus operandi during the Arafat era. The "no partner" mantra is designed to prevent President Barack Obama from renewing his push for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is determined to avoid.
Negotiations would require the Israeli government to cease the expansion of settlements, which Netanyahu and his rightist coalition refuses to do. Negotiations could also lead to Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, which is the worst case scenario from Netanyahu's perspective.
AIPAC, true to the new strategy, has already begun a lobbying campaign stressing the "no partner" line. In recent weeks, its legion of lobbyists has fanned out all over Capitol Hill to convince Congress that there simply are no Palestinians fit to negotiate with Israel.
Logically, this is a tough case to make. After all, for the last several years Netanyahu himself has admitted that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is an acceptable partner. In fact, Israel has bragged about its excellent relations with Abbas and about how together Israel and the PA had pretty much licked West Bank terrorism. AIPAC, naturally, parroted the same line. On top of that, in January, Al Jazeera published the "Palestine Papers," which demonstrated the embarrassing lengths that Abbas was willing to go to achieve a peace agreement with Israel.
At that point, Netanyahu suddenly began to fear being backed into a corner. Unless he could demonstrate that his "partner" Abbas was no partner at all, he might find himself coming under White House pressure to freeze settlements and begin negotiations. It was time to preempt Obama.
AIPAC quickly dispatched its lobbyists with new talking points purporting to demonstrate that Abbas has no interest in peace and never did. AIPAC's argument: if Abbas wanted peace, he would drop his silly refusal to negotiate with Netanyahu while Israel is expanding settlements. "What does one thing have to do with the other?" AIPAC asks. Abbas can have peace; he just can't expect Israel to stop building on his land.
But that is a hard sell, even for the ever-credulous Congress.
So Netanyahu came up with another rationale for doing nothing and AIPAC is already running with it. He says that Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority if the PA continues its efforts to end the split between the two rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas.
According to Haaretz, Netanyahu told Abbas, "You can't have peace with both Israel and Hamas. Choose peace with Israel."
This is typical Netanyahu, falling into the category of "too clever by half."
Netanyahu understands, of course, that Abbas cannot make peace with Israel except as a representative of both the people of the West Bank and of Gaza. If he tried, Hamas would subvert it (no doubt through violence). Additionally, a West Bank state would not be viable (Gaza and the West Bank together constitute 22 percent of historic Palestine; abandoning Gaza to permanent Israeli domination would reduce that percentage by half). Also, the West Bank is landlocked with Gaza's Mediterranean port being the Palestinians' only outlet to the world. Without Gaza, the West Bank is not a country but a walled-in ghetto.
That is why Abbas needs to work out some kind of arrangement that would unify the West Bank and Gaza. It is only as a representative of all Palestinians that he could negotiate a peace agreement with Israel or, failing that, unilaterally declare a Palestinian state and seek recognition from the international community (and then subsequently pursue negotiations with Israel).
But Netanyahu says no. As the current landlord of all of Palestine (i.e. the State of Israel, the West Bank, and blockaded Gaza), he absolutely forbids Fatah and Hamas to talk to each other. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Of course, it is not news that Israel refuses to deal with Hamas unless and until it agrees to live in peace with Israel. And that condition is absolutely right. It is also a condition that Abbas will advance in his dealings with Hamas simply because the last thing he wants — the very last thing — is war with Israel. And his record of combating terror, alongside Israeli forces, proves it.
An Israeli government that actually wants peace with the Palestinians would encourage Abbas' efforts toward Palestinian unity, without which there will never be peace. Israel need not endorse Abbas' efforts; it should simply wait and see what comes out of Fatah-Hamas talks.
Opponents of peace (actually, opponents of Israel returning any territory) point to Hamas as the big obstacle. And it is, so long as it either engages in violence or tolerates it. But the fact is that far more Gazans die at the hands of Israel than the other way around.
Reports from Gaza indicate that Hamas now fears that the cycle of violence will get out of control, leading to another Israeli invasion and the horrific loss of Palestinian lives (in 2008-9, the Israeli invasion led to 1,400 Palestinian dead — mostly civilians — compared to fewer than a dozen Israeli soldiers). If Hamas is amenable to a unified strategy with the Palestinian Authority, Israel should welcome such efforts rather than try to subvert them.
There is one more factor that should motivate Israelis to be more accepting of Palestinian unity. Peace cannot be achieved without it and Israel now needs an agreement with the Palestinians far more than the other way around.
The post-Mubarak government in Egypt is not going to be the de facto ally that Mubarak was. The Jordanian regime is on an increasingly shaky foundation. Bashar al-Assad, who approaches Israel with cautious fear, is under siege. Hezbollah controls Lebanon. And Turkey, Israel's closest ally in the region, has frozen relations over Israel's continued blockade of Gaza. As never before, Israel is isolated.
In short, time is not Israel's friend. It is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who can simply sit back and watch the clock.
The Netanyahu/AIPAC strategy for preserving the status quo may succeed in the short term. In fact, it probably will. That will help extend Netanyahu's tenure in office and maintain AIPAC's sway over U.S. policy. The ultimate loser, however, will be the Jewish state, which has become a political football used to advance the fortunes of people and institutions that look out only for themselves.
Its friends, not paid lobbyists for the status quo, need to step in. That is why J Street is growing by leaps and bounds: because it understands that it may be fun to drink with an alcoholic, but it is no act of friendship.
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