Payback with a Purpose

During the American presidential race, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made little secret of his support for Mitt Romney. They were old friends. They shared the same deep-pocketed donors. Netanyahu was even featured in Romney campaign ads targeted at Jewish voters in Florida. Israeli parliamentary elections are scheduled for January 22, two days after Barack Obama’s second inauguration, and it’s time for the president to repay the prime minister’s favor. Of course, Obama’s hostility to Netanyahu would have purer motives—to save Israel from a government that has turned that country into a pariah state and is destroying any prospect of a just and durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The recent Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations General Assembly encapsulates everything wrong with Netanyahu’s government, a coalition of religious nationalists and out-and-out racists led by his right-wing Likud Party. With significant European backing, the resolution to make Palestine a non-member observer state passed overwhelming despite objections from the United States, Israel, and seven other countries. The Jewish state had a right to be angry: The UN bid arguably violated the Oslo Accords, which prohibit unilateral action by either Israelis or Palestinians. That said, this was an avoidable embarrassment. Last year, the Palestinians attempted the same thing at the UN Security Council, a request nixed by the U.S. Between then and now, the Netanyahu government could have returned in earnest to the negotiating table, if it only had agreed to a halt to settlement-building, an offer that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, made repeatedly.

In remarks at the Begin Center in Jerusalem, Bibi Netanyahu struck a sanctimonious tone. “It doesn’t matter how many hands will be raised against it,” he said, “there is no force in the world that would cause me to compromise Israel’s security.” Writing off the international community wasn’t enough. He had to double down on the behavior that has paralyzed the peace process, announcing plans the next day to build 3,000 new housing units in the E1 corridor between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which would bifurcate the West Bank between north and south, further entrenching the Israeli occupation. As the left-leaning daily Haaretz wrote, this was “a step that, first and foremost, punishe[d] Israel.” The U.S., which had proven itself a true friend to Israel, issued a stinging condemnation. Five European nations summoned Israeli ambassadors to protest the Jewish state’s actions. Further recriminations are in the offing.

Some commentators conjectured that Bibi’s move was designed to gin up his base ahead of the election, after which he would cut a deal. This runs deeper than that, though. Bibi is heir to an expansionist and exclusivist Zionist vision of a Greater Israel that encompasses the occupied territories—and perhaps other lands. While he endorsed a two-state solution three years ago, his government’s settlement binge and legitimization of arguably illegal outposts indicate that he is not a true convert. An ability to overcome the past is the mark of the peacemaker. Menachen Begin and Anwar Sadat had it. Abbas might have it. Bibi probably doesn’t.

And that’s where the election comes in. Right now, Likud, which merged with the Arab-hating Yisrael Beiteinu party, is poised to rout a dispirited left beset by infighting. For its part, the Israeli electorate has grown more hawkish since the second intifada. But voters could be won over to the left if Netanyahu is seen as having damaged American-Israeli relations, a matter that bears heavily on their minds.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Bibi of hurting Israel by breaking for Romney. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the peace camp’s last, best hope, said Netanyahu “poked Obama in the eye” by approving settlement construction in E1. President Obama could give credence to both those arguments, and it would be just deserts for a government that thinks friendship is a one-way street.

U.S. action should be targeted at settlement-building, the biggest roadblock to peace. In 2010, The New York Times reported that $200 million in tax-deductible donations were funneled to the settlements by American charities. Removing that deduction would not make a big dent monetarily, but it would send a powerful signal. To ratchet things up, America could condition its loan guarantees to the Jewish state, $3.8 billion of which will be disbursed through 2016, on a cessation of settlement activity, subtracting the amount Israel spends on building from the sum of its guarantees, an idea occasionally floated. Finally, Obama could announce that military aid to Israel—in excess of $3 billion annually—is under review because of E1 construction, a development that would earn Netanyahu brickbats from across the political spectrum.

Such a decision would ignite a firestorm in America, but it might be the only way to rescue the Israeli left and win the peace. Plus, Obama’s already been re-elected.

Daniel J. Solomon ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.