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Obstructing a Middle East Rescue Effort

Special Middle East envoy George Mitchell is back in the region conducting his shuttle diplomacy, settlement construction continues apace and the much-anticipated speech of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton managed to avoid hard choices. It’s business as usual, so presumably we can all relax — Israel has dodged another peace bullet.

No so fast. I would suggest that recent events should have sent the gevalt-o-meter into the red zone for anyone concerned about Israel’s future or shared American-Israeli interests.

Without a decisive move to end the occupation, Israel will continue to dig itself deeper into a hole. Yet the Obama administration’s latest pronouncements on America’s peace efforts mark a tweak in strategy, not the clean break that is needed. The tweak is that American officials will now use indirect or back-to-back talks with the parties to probe on substantive issues, rather than manage mere talks about talks. That is an important and worthwhile shift, but it’s not enough.

A breakthrough will require much more — publicly stated American terms of reference for delineating a border (based on the 1967 lines and allowing for minor one-to-one land swaps), a realist-based approach to the region (go comprehensive, include Syria, bring Hamas into the equation, even if indirectly) and a willingness to deploy a bit of American leverage.

A bold American-led approach represents the precision cutting instrument that could extract Israel from its hole — largely intact and without unnecessary pain. Absent that, only blunt instruments are available — international demarches, pressure, sanctions — and their bluntness leaves the outcome for Israel unknown: two states, one state or perhaps years of purgatory.

Why is Israel deep in a hole? More than 500,000 Israelis live beyond the Green Line, and while not all of them are ideologues, the settlers are a politically powerful lobby. Israel’s dysfunctional politics trend against taking tough decisions. Israel has grown used to controlling the people and resources of the territories. Most worrying is an ever-strengthening narrative of a brand of Jewish nationalism that is exclusionary, anti-democratic and antithetical to acknowledging rights and freedoms for Palestinians.

It’s true that some don’t see this as a hole. Israel was granted 55% of the land by the United Nations in 1947, and we have since been recognized as legitimate on 78% of the land, so perhaps in due time the world will come to terms with an Israel on all of the land. As for the Palestinians, they have been expelled or denied their rights before — why not again? The United States will always have our back; we can find allies among Islamophobes and religious fanatics elsewhere and accuse naysayers of anti-Semitism.

Others may recognize the hole but have grown comfortable there and see no urgency in extraction. We can always blame the Palestinians, create new preconditions on refugees or recognizing the Jewish state, alleviate the occupation with economic sweeteners and play for time.

Both views are wrong. The blunt instruments are just around the corner, and they are mainly being held in check by a willingness of the Palestinian and Arab leaderships to continue to play the peace process game, which is in turn largely a product of their narrow self-interest and lack of democratic accountability. Any of this could snap at short notice.

Just in the time that elapsed since the collapse of efforts to restart direct negotiations, respected New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman effectively recommended conditioning American aid to Israel on its cooperation with peace efforts, while Andrew Sullivan — arguably America’s leading political blogger — called for an end to such aid entirely. Israel’s own actions, far more than those of its detractors, are hastening this moment. (Think about the recent decree by dozens of municipal rabbis prohibiting renting property to non-Jews, the proposed loyalty oath or the measures taken against Palestinian leaders engaged in nonviolent struggle.)

In fact, this is the real urgency — less what others say and do, but rather how we look at ourselves in the mirror. Ever since 1967, wise heads have counseled against the morally corrosive effects of occupying another people. Well, that corrosion is now on show with a clarity that is at once both stunning and deeply distressing. Israel can now only be free if the Palestinians are genuinely free of its occupation — with no ifs, buts, excuses or preconditions.

Now, it seems that the only way to free Israel — that American-led precision-cutting instrument — is still in storage. And incredibly, it is many of Israel’s own supposed supporters who are most insistent on keeping it there.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. He previously served as an adviser in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.

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