May 1, 2009
By Norman H. Olsen
Cherryfield, Maine — Let’s not be so hard on Bibi.
The squealing on the Israeli and American left is making Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu out to be a minority radical, a warmonger among the majority progressives who want a just peace with the Palestinians.
In reality, the bad news – and the good – is that Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t pretend to be a peacemaker.
Let’s look at the record.
Settlement construction, including the massive developments encircling Jerusalem, has continued for four decades. All of Bibi’s predecessors – even the “doves” – never once slowed settlement construction, despite their repeated assurances. Throughout, despite intensive US monitoring and reporting on growth, the US has always pretended to believe them.
In the early 1990s, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the US that settlement sites such as Har Homa were merely in the planning stages. When site work began, he claimed that it was only preparatory work with no approval for construction. When ministry approvals for construction were given, he and his successors claimed that they would prevent construction. Today Har Homa stands as one of the many monuments to the success of deny, deny, deny.
The latest and final major link in the chain of Jerusalem-encircling settlements, known as E1, has followed exactly the same progression. E1 is important, because if it is allowed to become a town, it will effectively split the West Bank in two, ending hopes for a two-state solution. US observers, myself included, reported during the past six years the clear evidence of site preparation, only to be told by the highest levels of the Israeli government that roadbeds, drainage systems, terracing, and other clearly observable major works were “erosion control.” Again, the US pretended to believe the official spin.
Former Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert told the US repeatedly that the separation barrier would not be used for political purposes, and that its route through the West Bank, rather than along the internationally accepted “Green Line,” was to provide security “setback” for towns on the Israeli side of the Green Line. Again, the US pretended to believe them.
Today, the tens of thousands of acres of West Bank land between the Green Line and the separation barrier are the fastest-growing areas for settlement construction, all built right up against the barrier, with no security setback, ensuring Israeli facts on the ground.
This pattern of pretending holds true for promises to ease travel for Palestinians within the West Bank. At the time of the Nov. 15, 2005, Agreement on Movement and Access, which was pressed on the Israelis and Palestinians by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, there were some 320 roadblocks. At the time, some US embassy staff openly termed the agreement toothless. Secretary Rice and her team termed it a historic achievement. Today, there are 632 roadblocks.
Ditto for the growth in Israeli-settler-only road systems in the West Bank, the thousands of Palestinians held prisoner for years without charge in Israeli “administrative detention,” and the continuing blockage of Palestinian commercial traffic into and out of the Occupied Territories.
Ditto, too, for the talk in the late 1990s – by Bibi no less! – about weaning Israel from the billions in US aid it gets each year. The Israelis assured progress and the US pretended to believe them. For cash-strapped American taxpayers, the 10-year agreement signed in 2007 for $30 billion in military assistance to Israel, plus another billion or so a year in assorted other US-funded programs, amounts to a lot of pretending.
Palestinians, unlike Americans, are under no illusion about change under a Netanyahu government; hence the lack of public outcry over the Netanyahu-Avigdor Lieberman alliance. Despite the regular meetings that the US insisted take place since 2002 between Israeli prime ministers and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Abbas never won a single substantive, realized concession. Israel and the US pretended that meetings equaled progress, but, each time, Abbas returned to Ramallah weakened, the object of increasing scorn not only from Hamas, but from his own Fatah supporters.
From the field, the relationship was always reminiscent of the scene from the 1967 comedy “A Guide for the Married Man,” where a man and his mistress, caught in flagrante by the wife, simply deny, deny, deny until they have calmly dressed and the mistress has departed, leaving the wife wondering whether to believe her eyes.
Once he became prime minister in the 1990s, even firebrand Netanyahu played the “we pretend, you pretend” game, signing on to the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, which, among other things, provided billions in US funding for Israel’s redeployment out of the West Bank and Gaza.
Now, though, Netanyahu appears to have ended the charade, although perhaps only until political expediency warrants another metamorphosis. His policies may be misguided, but his intellectual honesty may prove salutary. The Israeli right and its American supporters have a hard time claiming Israeli moderation and reasonableness when Netanyahu and his ministers openly oppose a two-state arrangement; affirm the blockade of Gaza, preventing reconstruction there; tout settlement expansion; brag of undermining US efforts to talk with Iran; and threaten an attack on Iran – across US-controlled Iraqi airspace – that could jeopardize US troops and interests throughout the region.
In lifting the veil on Israeli policy and the criticism-stifling fiction of US-Israeli mutual interest, Netanyahu leaves the US open, finally, to voice and pursue its own positions and interests.
Finally, Washington can say, clearly and forcefully, that Israel’s occupation harms US interests; that an attack on Iran is unacceptable and will get no US support, even in the UN Security Council; that settlement construction must stop and barriers be removed; that meetings are no substitute for progress; that Palestinians must be granted the opportunity – a real one – to form a viable state; and that the time has come for one of the world’s wealthiest countries to be weaned off American largess.
Norman H. Olsen is a former senior United States Foreign Service officer. He served at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv from 1991 to 1995, and from 2002 to 2007, including four years as chief of the political section.