SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) -- one of the most dismal is that the idea of two states, Israeli and Palestinian, co-existing peacefully side by side is dead and should be buried. In the past four years on Barack Obama’s watch it has certainly been moribund. The Palestinian leadership has been divided, with Fatah in the West Bank weak and hesitant and Hamas in Gaza unyielding and occasionally violent. But most of the blame falls on Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who reluctantly endorsed the two-state idea in 2009 but has since done nothing to bring it about. He is favoured to keep his post after a general election on January 22nd (see article). If he manages to emerge again at the head of a ruling coalition, he may be tempted to drop the two-state idea altogether or impose conditions on the Palestinians that would have the same effect. This would be a grave mistake—and the person who can do most to stop it is Mr Obama.
Mr Netanyahu’s own party, Likud, has long been ambivalent about giving the Palestinians a proper state. In its recent primary elections, bellicose figures who reject the two-state ideal prevailed. Moreover, Likud has since merged with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, which derides the Palestinians. Now pollsters are heralding the rise of a new party, led by Naftali Bennett, who calls for Israel to annex most of the West Bank, the core of a would-be Palestinian state. If Mr Netanyahu finds he has to team up with Mr Bennett, he will be dragged still further away from his tepid commitment to two states.
This means that people promoting a one-state plan have to be taken more seriously. Their ideas come in two strengths. The more clement version, called for by a large and growing minority of Palestinians and a few idealistic left-wing Jews, proposes a shared, binational state where Jews and Arabs respect each others’ rights, perhaps along federal lines. However, this scenario would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The harsher version, proposed by those to the right of Mr Netanyahu, is to declare the West Bank—Judea and Samaria, in their lexicon—to be part of a Greater Israel. The Palestinians would be left with municipal powers at most: anything greater and they would, by dint of their higher birth rate, eventually outnumber Jewish Israelis and outvote them, turning Israel into Palestine. That would mean the end of Israel as a democracy, since Jewish hegemony, would be sustained only by denying an Arab majority full political rights. Even Israel’s ardent supporters in America are queasy at such a prospect.
The one-state hawks, perhaps including Mr Netanyahu, say that Israel can defend itself against all-comers. The security barrier that bites into the West Bank has kept Arab suicide-bombers at bay. Despite economic discontent, which the opposition Labour party is exploiting, Israel has done well in the financial crisis; Israelis on average earn ten times more than Egyptians. Israel, say the one-staters, is used to a turbulent, hostile region. What’s new? Israel is strong. It can survive.
Yet Mr Netanyahu—or whoever governs Israel—still depends on outsiders, especially America, for material, military and moral support. He should be told, loud and clear, above all by Mr Obama, that he cannot bank on such benefits indefinitely if he abuses the goodwill of those, including this newspaper, who fiercely defend Israel’s right to exist.
Barack, be brave
In his first term Mr Obama made two bad mistakes vis-à-vis Israel. First, he never visited it to spell out his two-state vision and the steps to achieve it. Second, after persuading Mr Netanyahu to suspend the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, he failed to have a Plan B in case Israel refused—as it did—to stick with it. Mr Obama duly chastised Israel, but was afraid to annoy Israel’s friends in Congress by penalising it.
This time he must go to Jerusalem and spell out, with passion and detail, a comprehensive two-state blueprint, much like Bill Clinton’s “parameters” laid out 12 years ago—alas too late in his presidency. A tougher approach certainly involves arm-twisting Hamas: no American president should jeopardise Israel’s security. But Mr Obama cannot let Israel presume that its friendship with America comes so cost-free, especially when it comes to grabbing ever more bits of the West Bank.
Mr Obama can make Israelis pause by hampering organisations involved in settlement activities and by reducing aid. He can also use the bully pulpit to denounce any more attempts to stop the Palestinians getting a state. In November America was almost alone in seeking to stop the UN from endorsing an upgraded status for the Palestinians. Mr Obama should tell Israel, if it fails to be flexible or just, that America’s defence of it in every diplomatic forum can no longer be guaranteed.