Friday, June 3, 2011

When Tahrir Square comes to Israel

By Philip Stephens

Ingram Pinn illustration
The temptation is to shrug one’s shoulders. Efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict have hit another impasse. What’s new? We have been here for a generation. The world still turns. The Americans can try again after next year’s presidential election. What’s new is the Arab spring.
Anyone who saw Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the American Congress can be forgiven their fatalism. Israel’s prime minister will never negotiate seriously with the Palestinians. As a former Israeli diplomat said of Mr Netanyahu’s speech: “Everything is changing, but he is determined that everything remains the same.”
This time the world is unlikely to wait. Events are leaving Israel behind. The Arab uprisings are remaking the geopolitics of the Middle East. The Palestinians will seek international affirmation of their statehood when the United Nations General Assembly convenes in September.
Mr Netanyahu sees in this great upheaval another reason not to compromise. Israel’s friends have drawn the opposite conclusion. Barack Obama has made explicit the longstanding assumption that Israel’s 1967 borders, albeit with some exchanges of land, are the starting point for an agreement.
European governments – led by Britain and France – want the US president to go further by spelling out the other essential parameters for two states. There is nothing new in the substance here. There is a belief that the international community should now give its formal imprimatur to the basic structure of an accord.
As things stand, most European governments are inclined to back the Palestinians at the General Assembly. They don’t have much of a choice if a unified Palestinian government eschews violence. Yet there is also an evident risk that a UN vote could be a prelude for a third intifada.
Not so long ago Israel was relatively secure in its own region. Turkey and Egypt were allies of a sort – pillars of stability in any event in a region menaced by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Now Mr Netanyahu has broken with Ankara and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak has gone. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – an enemy, but at least a predictable one – may be next.
The democratic wave is lapping against Israel’s borders. The old order had it that Arab tyrants could be beaten on the battlefield, or squared, or sometimes both. It’s harder to suppress a democratic awakening. The nightmare for Mr Netanyahu is a peaceful uprising joined, as it was briefly last month, by protesters from Syria and Jordan. How will Israel respond if Palestinians borrow the tactics of Tahrir Square? The days are gone when tear gas was an answer.

Mr Netanyahu has led Israel to international isolation. His fractured relationship with Mr Obama is mirrored by a rupture with Europe. Britain and France no longer conceal their frustration. Germany, for obvious reasons of history a stalwart ally, has lost all patience.
The turning point came in February when these so-called E3 countries backed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Mr Netanyahu’s expansion of illegal settlements. Fourteen of the 15 Security Council members supported the resolution. Mr Netanyahu was saved by a US veto.
The accompanying European statement – in diplomatic jargon an “explanation of vote” – was overlooked at the time. The world had its eyes on Egypt. But set the statement alongside Mr Netanyahu’s Washington speech and the distance between them is beyond bridging.
The Palestinian Authority, the three declared, “has developed the capacity to run a democratic and peaceful state, founded on the rule of law and living in peace and security with Israel”. As for the parameters, they were what they had always been: borders based on 1967 with agreed land swaps, absolute security for Israel, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and a negotiated agreement on refugees.
The authors of this document are not Israel’s enemies. William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, has been a friend for as long as he has been in long trousers. Germany’s Angela Merkel has been an unflinching ally. They care about the future of Israel. But with Mr Netanyahu, enough, they now say, is enough.
To American and European minds the strategic stability and security of the Middle East cannot be separated from Palestinian aspirations. Nor can Israel’s security. Mr Netanyahu is mapping a path to an Israel in which Jews are a minority and Palestinians are herded into Bantustans.
The Palestinians, of course, must be challenged. Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas must include a repudiation of violence. One of the many paradoxes of Israel’s present position is that the Palestinian side escapes close scrutiny. But Palestinian intentions can be properly tested only when the offer of a state is on the table. In Mr Obama’s description: “The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves…. in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
Mr Netanyahu’s response has been to add his name to the Republican ticket for the 2012 presidential elections. No doubt he enjoyed the applause he received from the US Congress. But where in all this is anything resembling a plan to safeguard Israel’s strategic security?
The Israeli leader calculates that Mr Obama will be constrained before next year’s election. But the US may well be content for the Europeans to act as outriders. The next step could (and should) be a Security Council resolution setting in concrete the four parameters.
Mr Netanyahu’s ambition in all this may extend no further than clinging to office. Another explanation would say he was never ready to contemplate a Palestinian state – a position inconveniently exposed by the rush of events.
Either way, Israel’s prime minister has put himself in the company of those Middle East leaders whose only vision is of the past. He has one or two allies in the effort to turn back the tide of history. Syria and Saudi Arabia spring to mind. But is this the company that Israel – the region’s first democracy – really wants to keep?

Source: FT

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