So, did Netanyahu really ‘win’?

This article also appeared in Haaretz

After his triumphant United Nations visit and trilateral New York summit, the verdict apparently is in: Benjamin Netanyahu is the heavyweight diplomatic champion of the world, defeating Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by a knockout and U.S. President Barack Obama on points. How do we know? Well, we are told, the preeminent goal of the second Netanyahu premiership is now within reach, namely urgent and unconditional permanent-status negotiations with the Palestinians on all issues, with active American shepherding.

NetanyahuReally? Does Netanyahu really want, at the earliest opportunity, to be negotiating the 1967 borders, land swaps, settlement evacuation, and the sharing or dividing of Jerusalem, while there are Palestinians and Americans in the room? I don’t think so. So what did he think he was getting himself into?

The much derided and scorned Obama team actually has pulled off one of the more difficult moves in diplomatic choreography. They now have a tricky interlocutor, in this case Israel’s leader, enthusiastically embracing their target (endgame two-state negotiations) as his own.

This does not mean we have entered the home stretch, or that a two-state deal is now a foregone conclusion. Netanyahu will no doubt pursue new exit strategies, but several of his more cherished diversionary tactics already have been neutralized, and Israel’s prime minister is barely even aware he has been mugged.

Not that this exercise has been cost-free for the Obama administration. A price has been paid, both in the squandering of newly earned goodwill with the Arab and Muslim worlds and in appearing to Israelis to have blinked first. Still, neither of these is irreversible.

Let’s be honest: The general assumption when Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office was that he would do everything to avoid being cornered into negotiating the core two-state issues. That was understandable, given that his opening positions, on territory or Jerusalem for instance, fly in the face of U.S. and international consensus and previous Israeli precedents. And so he did.

The initial rabbit Netanyahu pulled out of the hat to avoid the core Palestinian issues was called “Iran first.” That was politely yet firmly rebuffed by a well-deployed counterargument from the Americans. The Iran file becomes harder, not easier, to manage if the Palestinian issue is neglected or allowed to deteriorate further.

Next came the “normalization first” canard: The Arab states must take tangible steps toward normalizing relations with Israel if Israelis are to have faith in a renewed two-state effort. This one showed more promise. Alas, as Nahum Barnea reported last week in Yedioth Ahronoth, when Israel’s government takes a meaningful settlement freeze off the agenda, there can be no serious push for Arab gestures.

Finally, we were served the Netanyahu specialite de la maison: “economic peace first.” If the Israeli official spin machine had its way, we would all be googling listings for the Nablus cineplex and marveling at the West Asian economic tiger of Palestine’s West Bank archipelago. That is not happening either, some overly rosy puff pieces notwithstanding. For one thing, the case rests on flimsy foundations – severe restrictions remain on Palestinian freedom of movement, access to land and resources, and the economy remains precarious.

Just as important, the Obama team, while encouraging economic progress, has consistently insisted that interim confidence-building measures must begin with a full settlement freeze. A clear principle has been established: A prerequisite for a gradual peace effort based on mutual confidence-building measures is a comprehensive settlement freeze now; the alternative is permanent status now. So here we are, with Benjamin Netanyahu on the fast-track to endgame two-state negotiations.

This is an Obama achievement secured with consummate Obama style. He has wrong-footed an opponent without fanfare, without vitriol, and quietly reframed the terms of debate to his liking. Of course, Netanyahu may and probably will continue to seek diversions and escape routes, but his opening moves have all been foiled. It seems Obama cornered Netanyahu rather than the other way around.

However, the problem with this analysis is in its framing. Is the U.S.-Israel relationship really a zero-sum game about who can more effectively hoodwink the other? Israel must desist from making it so. The United States and Israel have certain independent and shared interests. If the latter exist only with a neoconservative, Fox News, and pro-settler evangelical America, then we are in serious trouble. And in truth, such a narrow definition of shared interests is incorrect.

America and Israel are both served by a United States that is stronger, not weaker; more credible, not less; whose message of hope and tolerance resonates louder in the Middle East and elsewhere, not softer. Israel does not have a spare America. Israel and America are also both served by maintaining their partnership and by America’s ability to continue to stand by a long-time regional ally. That is why President Obama refers to securing a two-state solution, to ending the occupation that began in 1967, as a strategic interest for America and Israel alike.

We could count down the days to January 2013 and pretend that Obama is fatally naive or politically weakened (or both) – despite polls showing him to be more popular at this stage of his presidency (with 56 percent support) than either Ronald Reagan (53 percent) or Bill Clinton (42 percent) – but that would be a fool’s game.

The truth, inconvenient or otherwise, is that the absence of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state devastates American interests, and that should matter for Israel and the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship.