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Three Leaders and the Third Rail of Foreign Affairs Three Leaders and the Third Rail of Foreign Affairs

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Three Leaders and the Third Rail of Foreign Affairs


Obama, center, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 1, 2010, at the White House.(TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

There are reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains among the most enduring in international affairs, and many of them were on display this week as world leaders gathered at the United Nations to contemplate a vote on Palestinian statehood. The three key players arrived in New York already boxed in by their personal histories of distrust, and by powerful domestic constituencies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who built a political career opposing Palestinian statehood, got another preview of just how lonely that opposition will prove for Israel. Having refused offers by Israel in the past that are more generous than he could ever get today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas instead pushed for a Pyrrhic victory at the United Nations that could set back the actual cause of statehood for years. And after spending much of his first term and considerable political capital pushing for a breakthrough in the peace process, a much weakened President Obama arrived in New York with little to show for it other than jeers from political rivals that he is intent on “throwing Israel under the bus.”


In diplomatic circles it is fashionable to argue that to defuse the current crises in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these three leaders need to get back to a negotiating table. Almost no one talks about just how little of substance they would actually have to say to one another at this point.

“There is nothing the United States can plausibly do or say to produce talks that have even a reasonable chance of ending the conflict at this time, and indeed the most dangerous outcome would be a clever U.S. formula that restarts talks that are doomed to implode and dash expectations once again,” said Aaron David Miller, a former longtime Middle East negotiator and scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “If you are Barack Obama and you care at all about being reelected, this issue is also not worth sacrificing any more political capital on, period. It can only hurt the president over the next 14 months, and it can hurt him badly.”

That point was driven home by Texas governor and Republican presidential front-runner Rick Perry, who stood blocks away from the United Nations and accused Obama of “appeasement” of Israel’s security, despite the fact that Israeli officials themselves have said that Obama has been a stalwart defender of the Jewish state. With polls showing a softening of support for Obama among Jewish voters in key swing states, a full-page advertisement ran in The New York Times this week claiming falsely that Obama had pressured Israel to “apologize to terrorists.” The convergence suggests that the hawkish, Israel-first coalition between Christian evangelicals and neoconservatives that drove U.S. policy for much of George W. Bush’s tenure remains a powerful force in the Republican Party.


The advertisement was paid for by the Emergency Committee for Israel, whose board consists of longtime Christian conservative Gary Bauer, and William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard who was an intellectual soul mate with many of the prominent neoconservatives in the Bush 43 administration. Both groups have long opposed any U.S. pressure to halt Israel’s settlement expansion, considered illegitimate under decades of U.S. policy and illegal according to international law.

For his part, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in New York knowing that his quixotic quest for statehood at the United Nations invites painful retaliation by both Israel and the U.S. Congress, and risks a split with a sympathetic White House and the possible collapse of his own administration. Yet having staked his career and reputation on rejecting violence and negotiating a two-state solution, Abbas has lost patience with a peace process that has allowed the settler population in the occupied territories to nearly triple, and which has dragged on for nearly two decades with no political horizon yet in sight. European diplomats who have spoken with Abbas say that he feels humiliated, unable to walk the streets of the West Bank any longer for fear of the opprobrium of his fellow Palestinians. Abbas’ growing sense of despair that talks will ever end in Palestinian statehood is shared by many Palestinians.

“There’s a very, very slim chance that a two-state solution is still possible, but that window is probably only going to be open months and not years, because Israel is in a mad race to destroy the foundation of a Palestinian state with its settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it’s building of a security wall,” Hanan Ashrawi, a longtime member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told National Journal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu built his career championing settlements and opposing Palestinian statehood (which he once called an “incendiary bomb in the international fabric”), and he now sits comfortably atop a coalition that has reaped the benefits of a marked rightward shift in the Israeli body politic. As a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded, the growing demographic weight of Orthodox, nationalist religious, and Russian-speaking communities inside Israel is dramatically reshaping Israeli politics in a direction more supportive of Netanyahu’s hardline policies. “Israel’s Jewish population is more nationalistic, religiously conservative, and hawkish on foreign policy and security affairs than that of even a generation ago,” wrote report author Haim Malka. “It would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders.”

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