No Magic Required

This article also appears in Haaretz

President Barack Obama has been thrust into center stage in Israel’s general election. Not by choice, of course. Democratic hopeful Obama met with the leading candidates during his own campaign swing through the Middle East last July, and his newly appointed special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, met with them all this week. If it were up to the U.S. president, one assumes that would be it.

But Kadima’s spin doctors have other ideas, and have concocted a campaign message suggesting that a victory by Benjamin Netanyahu would lead to a rupture between Israel and the White House. Likud retorts that Netanyahu enjoyed excellent meetings with Obama when the latter was a senator, and that their views on an “economic peace” are closely aligned.

If this all sounds a little childish, that’s because it is: Neither Barack Obama nor his brand of inspirational hope, combined with an agenda for progressive policy change, are on the Israeli ballot on February 10.

Despite the attempts to demonstrate difference, all of Israel’s major parties are offering a staple diet of more of the same. Whether the label says “continuing the Annapolis process” or “economic peace,” we already know what the unappetizing results will be: more improvisation and absence of strategy, and more tactics and permanent avoidance of the difficult decisions that need to be made.

On paper, government guidelines always talk about peace. On the ground, though, governmental actions just further entrench the infrastructure of occupation and expand settlements. When it comes to land and peace issues, Israel’s leaders have become experts in one thing – postponing decisions. (The Palestinians don’t exactly have a strategic plan, either.)

In fact, the argument over who will do best with President Obama comes down to this: Who can best assure that Israel will be left to its own devices to pursue…well, what exactly? There’s the rub. We have become tactical masters, improvisational impresarios. But what strategic vision are we seeking to implement? Greater Israel? Then annex the territories and expel the Palestinians. Recognition, peace and a two-state solution? Then dismantle the settlements and end the occupation.

So on February 10, most Jewish Israelis will again be choosing not to choose – even if the consequences will be an ever-deteriorating national security environment in Israel, and even if the option of a democratic Israel with a Jewish character is receding with such speed that it is unlikely to outlast the Obama administration. (To be fair, voters for the far-right parties and those supporting Meretz will be expressing a choice.)

America and its new president do, of course, matter. The U.S. plays a key role in setting the stage for this exercise in improvisation. Without American facilitation, the make-believe, fairy-tale world of the never-ending, oh-we-are-so-close “peace process” cannot be sustained. And in this fairy tale, Tzipi Livni is not the Good Witch of the South, nor is Benjamin Netanyahu the Wicked Witch of the East. Rather, they are both competing to lead a body politic that more closely resembles a hybrid of the Cowardly Lion, the Brainless Scarecrow and the Heartless Tin Man.

The question for President Obama and his new envoy, former senator Mitchell, will be whether to maintain the fiction, or to chart a bold, game-changing course to resolve this conflict.

The former would entail continued American support for a West Bank strategy taken from classic counterinsurgency doctrine: supporting moderates through economic assistance, security training and a political embrace. However, the defining characteristic of the Palestinian situation is not the Fatah-Hamas rift, but a very different variable: namely, a continued hostile occupation that includes a dispersed civilian settler population. By not addressing this and by excluding Hamas based on political preconditions, and not just behavioral ones (cease-fire, end to violence), the prospects of any sustainable success for this strategy are totally negated.

The existing approach also invites occasional American spats with Israel over such policies as settlement expansion and checkpoints. But these distractions deal only with the problem’s symptoms, not its cause. Settlement and closure policies are a derivative of the lack of a recognized border for Israel, of no Palestinian state and of no end to occupation. Settlements need to be removed, not just frozen in place.

A game-changing approach would address these issues or, in other words, the causes. Such an approach would probably require a U.S-led plan to resolve the conflict, together with regional and international partners. This plan would also have to address Israel’s core and legitimate concerns: avoidance of a security and governance vacuum and threats from the areas Israel evacuates (probably necessitating deployment of NATO or other forces), international recognition of the new border and a finality of claims, Israeli sovereign discretion over its own immigration policy, and a regional framework based on the Arab Peace Initiative, whereby Arab states establish relations with Israel.

Israel’s challenge would be to strategically and positively respond to such a plan and the opportunity it offers – or, even better, to initiate just such a game-changing move itself.

To stretch that “Wizard of Oz” metaphor a little further: No magical wizard is really needed. Rather, a determined American president who can speak in a language of common sense and shared interests to Israel’s leaders, and in so doing help Israel to locate its collective and long underutilized brain, heart and courage.