Do Further Conditions Equal An ‘Acceptance’ Of The Road Map?

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

bibiIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to give a speech this Sunday at Bar-Ilan University outlining his government’s policy toward Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Israel’s Haaretz reports Netanyahu is expected to embrace the 2003 road map while adding new conditions to its implementation, and rebuffing the Obama administration’s call to freeze all settlement construction. While acceptance of the road map –- and therefore the existence of a future Palestinian state -– represents a significant step by Netanyahu, it should by no means be recognized as a “concession.” It is simply a recognition of Israel’s past commitments.

But by accepting the road map without acceding to one of its key components –- halting all settlement growth –- Netanyahu is in effect undermining the viability of the road map. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have rightly held fast to a settlement freeze, fending off the dubious arguments for “natural growth” (which is impermissible under the road map anyway). Despite whatever concessions Netanyahu offers in his speech this weekend, the Obama administration should not bend in its insistence that all settlement growth stop and both the spirit and letter of the road map be adhered to.

It seems clear that Netanyahu is playing a difficult two-level game now: he is attempting to appease Israel’s indispensable patron, the U.S., which has taken a harder line on settlements and other issues relating to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, while maintaining his governing coalition in Israel, which doesn’t like the idea of a Palestinian state at all. This balancing act is tricky, and Netanyahu’s track record suggests he might not be able to pull it off.

Some of Netanyahu’s other conditions -– demilitarization of a Palestinian state, airspace control, and the like –- have been discussed as part of negotiations. Presenting these as conditions for negotiation rather than subjects for negotiation simply adds an additional, unnecessary hurdle to restarting serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s basically asking the Palestinians to surrender some of their bargaining chips before entering into negotiations.

Netanyahu’s last and most contentious condition is largely symbolic –- the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Considering that the Israelis themselves haven’t been able to pin down what a Jewish state is –- religious? ethno-nationalist? -– putting the Palestinians on the spot to recognize it as such simply confuses the primary issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist, which the PLO has done since the late 1980s. After all, if Israel has a right to exist, who outside of Israel cares whether or not it defines itself as a Jewish state or not? That should properly be a matter for Israelis themselves. Ironically, by demanding the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu is basically inviting the Palestinians to become intimately involved in the domestic debate over the self-identity of the Israeli state. This does not strike me as a smart move for an Israeli leader concerned about his country’s long-term future.

From a domestic political perspective, such a recognition demand simply amounts to red meat for Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners. And it may work to keep Netanyahu in power by stalling Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over an ultimately pointless semantic distinction. But for U.S. interests, such an impasse would have deeply negative consequences.

Unless Netanyahu surprises everyone this weekend and fully embraces the road map without further conditions, the Obama administration should stick to its current policy of demanding a settlement freeze. It cannot allow the Israeli government obfuscate and play semantic games in order to break free from the obligations it has assumed over the years.