With Benjamin Netanyahu taking the reins of power in Israel, his critics are wasting no time in making the case that his ascension to the post of prime minister is bad news for peace, and even worse news for relations with Washington.
They are wrong on both counts.
In fact, chances of arriving at a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, or at least of achieving an abatement of the conflict, may significantly improve with Netanyahu as prime minister. Netanyahu realizes that the peace process, as it currently exists, is not producing results. But that shouldn’t lead to conflict with the Obama administration.
It is self-evident that the so-called Annapolis process initiated by the Bush administration was an abject failure. Israel’s outgoing government, with the zealous participation of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, spent over a year in fruitless talks with a dithering and powerless Palestinian leadership. In spite of offering far-reaching — and, in the view of many Israelis, irresponsible — concessions, Israel’s outgoing government achieved zero results. So why should America’s new leader — who has said more than once that he intends to work actively, even “aggressively,” for Middle East peace — hitch his wagon to the failed initiative of a previous administration? That President Obama understands that a new direction is needed seems to be borne out by the fact that he sent his envoy, George Mitchell, on a fact-finding mission to the region in order to sound out local leaders for new ideas.
Policy-makers in Washington should not underestimate Netanyahu’s determination to find and explore new avenues for pursuing peace. They shouldn’t forget that Israel’s first treaty with an Arab state, the Camp David agreement with Egypt, was concluded by a Likud government, led by Menachem Begin, or that a Likud government, headed by Yitzhak Shamir, laid much of the groundwork for the eventual accord with Jordan.
True, in some important respects, the situation is different now. Islamic fundamentalism and Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and active support for Palestinian and other Arab forces that are ideologically opposed to Israel’s existence are serious challenges. These factors have lessened the ability and the motivation of even relatively moderate leaders like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to publicly acknowledge that in order to achieve peace there must be compromise on both sides. Then there’s the takeover by Tehran’s proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, of Gaza and Southern Lebanon. If Israel were to withdraw precipitately from the West Bank, as it did three years ago from Gaza, it would likely find Iran’s terrorist surrogates on its very threshold, just a few miles away from its only international airport and from most of its population centers.
Still, there are opportunities for progress. Netanyahu has stated publicly and made clear to President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, George Mitchell and world leaders that he is determined to continue political talks with any Palestinian leadership that takes concrete steps against violence and terrorism. And he does not rule out, among various options, a regional approach to peace, particularly one including Egypt and Jordan.
But he is also determined to persuade both the international community and the Palestinians themselves that in order to make a political settlement a viable success, several things must happen first. Perhaps the most important of these is putting the Palestinian economy on a firm and productive footing.
This, of course, would not make Palestinians forget their political aspirations. But it might induce more of them to reject the violent and destructive ways of Hamas and its patrons — and at the same time create the necessary infrastructure and climate for future political arrangements. In other words, economic and social betterment would not take the place of political solutions but would serve as a conduit leading toward them. Mitchell, who played a leading role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, is surely aware of the importance that the promise of economic prosperity for both sides there played in his success.
Netanyahu heading the Israeli government may thus give the prospects for peace a new lease on life. And he is fully cognizant of the importance of Israel’s ties with the United Stares, not least with regard to the threats facing both of them from a quickly nuclearizing Iran. His government can be counted on to work closely with the Obama administration on peace as well as on other issues.
Zalman Shoval is a foreign policy adviser to incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2000. Before that, he was a four-term member of the Knesset.