Financial Times, August 25 2009
When Barack Obama told Israel that “part of being a good friend is being honest”, the country’s political elites got an inkling that decades of double-talk on the conflict with the Palestinians were over. In his June 4 speech at Cairo University he spelled it out: “Just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.”
The US president could have been addressing Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who refuses to rein in colonisation of Palestinian land or push a two-state solution to the conflict. Yet, however much Mr Obama tries to change the conversation, in and on the Middle East, Mr Netanyahu keeps trying to change the subject.
Mr Obama has chosen as his battleground the Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land, all of them illegal under international law. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” the president said. Washington has called for a total freeze, including on the so-called “natural growth” that has enabled the settlements to expand exponentially. Mr Netanyahu, in London and due to see George Mitchell, the president’s special representative, wants to talk economics. This is a cynical evasion.
It is important to remember that Mr Netanyahu has always argued that the Palestinians cannot expect a nation, only some sort of supra-municipal government. His utterance of the word “state” in the June 14 policy speech he made in reply to Mr Obama does not change this in any substantive way. Beyond the Jewish religious claim to the Israel of the Bible, Eretz Israel, Netanyahu believes Israeli security requires a buffer of occupied land – including most of the West Bank – to insulate it from its Arab neighbours. The whole Arab-Israeli equation is, for him, a zero sum game. That rules out land-for-peace: the United Nations Security Council-mandated approach ever since the 1967 Six Day War.
During his 1996-99 premiership, instead of land-for-peace he offered peace-for-peace; now he obfuscates about an “economic peace”.
Economics, and the prospect of a job, are of course, powerful agents of change. The remarkable success of Israel in nation-building and economic development rightly stands as a daily accusation against its Arab neighbours, weakened and stunted by introspective autocracies. Yet Mr Netanyahu’s pitch, that Israel can help the Arabs embrace globalisation and turn the region into one happy family, has a bit of recent history to explain.
While it is true that Arab leaders use the stalemate of “no war, no peace” to justify their monopolies on power and resources, it is also true they (and their citizens) feel swindled by the experience of Oslo.
In 1992-96, at the height of the peace process, Israel alone reaped a peace dividend, without having to conclude a peace. Diplomatic recognition of Israel doubled, from 85 to 161 countries, leading to doubled exports and a sixfold increase in foreign investment. During the same period, per capita income in the occupied territories fell by 37 per cent while the number of settlers increased by 50 per cent. Economic development deals in facts; Mr Netanyahu deals in cosmetics.
With an economic peace, he argues, barriers to growth would be removed and the Palestinian economy would be refloated. But Israel can and should remove most of those barriers anyway. According to the UN, last month there were 614 checkpoints inside the West Bank – an area the size of Lincolnshire or Delaware – compared with 613 in June. The recent removal of, say, the choke-points into Nablus, has led to a pick-up in business. But what this shows is how Israel’s carve-up of the West Bank is stifling all activity.
Mr Netanyahu’s emotive insistence on “natural” settlement growth is equally bogus. With vast subsidies, these colonies are growing at more than three times the rate of population in Israel proper. The municipal boundaries of the settlements extend far beyond the built-up areas. Combined with the security wall built on West Bank land, the settler-only roads and the military zones, the Palestinians are penned into shrinking and discontiguous Bantustans.
Any economy needs, among other things, territory and freedom of movement. The prostrate Palestinian economy is no different. Mr Netanyahu knows it, and the Obama administration has made clear to him it knows he knows it.
In his last administration, Mr Netanyahu turned the drive for peace into pure process: piling up unresolved disputes to be parked in “final status” negotiations he never intended to begin. Under US pressure he has changed tactics – but the aim is exactly the same.