A right-wing Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is widely seen as spelling the end of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Given the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which Netanyahu has promised to accelerate, no other outcome seems conceivable.
While this view is undoubtedly correct, the belief that a center or center-left government would conclude a two-state agreement is a delusion Western leaders seem unable to discard, no matter how egregiously the current Kadima/Labor government continues to undermine a two-state solution - with continued seizures of Palestinian territory, expansion of existing settlements, and closing off Jerusalem to West Bank Palestinians.
And yet, a good case can be made for the counter-intuitive notion that only a right-wing government of the kind now being formed by Netanyahu holds the remaining hope for viable Palestinian statehood. Such an argument has nothing to do with the popular Israeli belief that, like Nixon's 1972 visit to China, "only Likud can make peace, and only Labor [or Kadima] can make war," for it ignores the fact that Nixon wanted to go to China, whereas no member of a right-wing Israeli government wants a Palestinian state. What Netanyahu and his prospective radical-right coalition parties want is more Palestinian territory and a Palestinian entity emptied of every vestige of sovereignty.
The argument in favor of a Netanyahu-led government derives from the certainty that a centrist government is equally incapable of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. For all the protestations by Kadima's Ehud Olmert and Labor's Ehud Barak that they are desperately seeking a peace agreement with their favored Palestinian peace partner Mahmoud Abbas, without unprecedented U.S. pressure on Israel to reach an agreement approximating the Clinton proposals, they are no more likely than Netanyahu to do anything other than use the peace process they champion as a cover for the continued expansion of settlements and the closing off of East Jerusalem to any future Palestinian entity.
After all, this is exactly what they have been doing since the Oslo accords and the various ensuing agreements, including the road map and the Annapolis-sponsored peace talks. The only remaining hope to prevent the two-state solution from disappearing entirely is a decisive change in America's Middle East policy - from "facilitation," which in the past meant helping Israel do what it wanted to do, to active intervention. This means presenting both parties with America's outline for a permanent status agreement, endorsed by the international community and supported by significant and evenhanded sanctions on whichever side obstructs it.
While such an initiative can only be led by the U.S., it is unlikely to be undertaken while a center-left government is in place in Israel. American presidents do not enjoy challenging the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and Congress by going toe-to-toe with Israeli leaders who are perceived in this country, however mistakenly, as truly committed to a two-state solution.
However, a Netanyahu-led government with coalition partners like Avigdor Lieberman and other extreme right-wing parties that do not enjoy much popular support in the U.S. (or anywhere else for that matter) would allow President Barack Obama and his administration to advance such an initiative. It is often forgotten that Netanyahu's obstructionism while serving as prime minister from 1996-1999 was so unpopular that president Clinton was able to bar him from the White House, with hardly a whimper from the Israel lobby.
Given the imminent disappearance of the two-state solution and Israel's military and diplomatic dependence on the U.S. (which has only increased with the growing anti-Israel mood in the region and beyond), an American president who is prepared to say "Enough" to the two adversaries, and present them with clear parameters for a permanent status agreement, is far more likely to do so with a recalcitrant right-wing government led by Netanyahu than with a centrist government headed by those who claim to seek an end to the conflict.
Netanyahu's right-wing government would not yield to such pressure. But having finally established clear parameters and defined the red lines of what kind of peace agreement is acceptable to the U.S. - something a U.S. president is not likely or able to do when a centrist government is in power - such parameters would remain in place once Netanyahu's government collapses, as it surely will, and a center-left coalition returns. This is the only conceivable scenario for a fair and sustainable peace accord that can prevent the disintegration of the Palestinian national struggle into another violent intifada that will do away with the two-state paradigm.
So far, other than appointing George Mitchell as the president's personal emissary, little has happened to warrant the belief that the Obama administration is prepared to pursue a course markedly different from that of its predecessors. Indeed, nothing could be more discouraging than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's March 3 statement in Israel in which she qualified her strong support for the two-state solution with the observation: "But obviously, it is up to the people and the government of Israel to decide."
Even the Bush administration did not argue that Israelis and their government can deny the Palestinian people the right to a "viable and sovereign" state of their own, as provided by the road map and international law.
One must hope that this was an impromptu, well-intentioned, but ill-considered off-the-cuff remark that does not represent the secretary of state's position or that of the administration. Otherwise, the Kaddish should be recited for the two-state paradigm.
Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project in New York, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
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