Netanyahu's historic mistake

By refusing a U.S. request to halt settlements, Israel makes itself less safe

December 14, 2010|By Robert O. Freedman

Historians writing about key turning points in the Middle East 50 years from now may well point to last week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost a golden opportunity to enhance Israeli security. Following the end of Israel's partial settlement construction ban at the end of September, which led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to break off the direct negotiations with Israel that the U.S. had so painfully arranged at the beginning of the month, the U.S. made a series of offers to the Jewish state, linking increased security and diplomatic assistance to Mr. Netanyahu's agreement to the reinstatement of the settlement construction ban for an additional 90 days.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, refused the offer, choosing to side with his settler constituency instead of with Israel's security needs, and in doing so he made a major mistake.

The underlying premise of the U.S. strategy had been that during the three-month period of direct negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could — thanks to the renewed moratorium — come to an agreement on provisional boundaries for the new Palestinian state, thus rendering moot the issue of continued Israeli settlement construction in territories Israel would keep in the West Bank (in return for land swaps elsewhere).

The security offers were very significant. First, Israel would have obtained an additional squadron of 20 F-35 strike fighters, to go along with the 20 Israel had already agreed to purchase, and which would arrive in 2015. The F-35 Stealth Fighter is touted as the best fighter plane in the world, and it would have helped Israel maintain its command of the air vis-a-vis its Arab and Iranian enemies.

Second, Israel and the United States would have concluded a major security pact, thus further contributing to Israel's security if it expressly linked an Arab or Iranian attack on Israel to direct U.S. retaliation.

Third, the U.S. would have gone along with a long-term Israeli presence along the eastern boundary of the new Palestinian state to prevent smuggling of weapons such as anti-tank missiles and surface-to air missiles to which Israel would be very vulnerable if they were deployed in the West Bank.

Finally, the U.S. had pledged to prevent any action against Israel in international forums such as the United Nations Security Council, an institution which the Palestinians have said they would use to try to unilaterally proclaim a Palestinian state.

The benefits to Israel's security position of the U.S. offer were publicly acknowledged by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the leader of Israel's Labor Party, which is a member of Mr. Netanyahu's governing coalition. In the words of Mr. Barak, "Twenty planes are of incomparably greater importance than momentary smiles between Bibi [Netanyahu] and his Likud [members of Parliament]."

Nonetheless, by not accepting the U.S. offer and leading the U.S. to take it off the bargaining table, Mr. Netanyahu has clearly decided to side with the pro-settler factions of his government, and in doing so faces three risks.

First, the Labor Party, which has strongly supported both the peace process and Israeli security, may decide to pull out of the governing coalition, leaving Mr. Netanyahu with a one-seat majority in the Israeli Parliament and opening him up to blackmail from the other factions in the coalition. Second, Mr. Netanyahu has struck a blow against Mahmoud Abbas, who is probably the best Palestinian peace interlocutor Israel is likely to have. Last, and perhaps most important, he has undermined Israeli security not only by forgoing the additional squadron of F-35's and a security treaty with the U.S. but also by alienating President Obama, who had worked very hard for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Whether the benefit of constructing additional housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is worth these major costs is a highly doubtful proposition.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is visiting professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. His publications include "Israel Under Rabin" and the forthcoming "Six Decades Of U.S.-Israeli Relations." His e-mail is rofreedman@comcast.net.

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