The Words of the Wilson Family

Prospects for Peace: Obama's Visit to Israel

Andrew Wilson
March 20, 2013

Tzipi Livni

Among those of us seeking a resumption of the peace process, Israel's newest government does not inspire confidence. Jewish Home, the pro-settler party of Naftali Bennett, is ensconced in the government, and his party now controls key ministries, like the Construction Ministry, which caters to settlers' needs. This does not bode well for resuming negotiations with the Palestinians -- if Bennett has his way, that is. Only Tzipi Livni, who joined the coalition as Justice Minister based on a promise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government would negotiate with the Palestinians, is forcefully advocating for moving toward a two-state solution. If she is to have any success, she will need Netanyahu's support. But with his track record of temporizing and delay, there is not much confidence there. He will need to be convinced by circumstance, such as Israel's increased international isolation or U.S. arm-twisting, that moving forward with negotiations with the Palestinians is in Israel's interests.

Before writing off this government, let's consider how Livni might prevail. Today at the new government's swearing-in at the Knesset she spoke heart-felt words to a reporter, saying that it will be "very difficult" to energize negotiations with the Palestinians, but she's going to do her best.

She may find an ally in Bibi's wife Sara Netanyahu, who detests Bennett from the days when he served as the prime minister's chief of staff. Already, Sara demanded that her husband deny Bennett the post of vice-premier. Netanyahu listened to his wife; he may do so again.

Livni is the only member of the new "security cabinet" who is even remotely interested in negotiations. Bennett, being one of the most opposed to conciliation, must be overcome if the cabinet is to consider Livni's agenda. And it can be done. Bennett is a small-minded man who is committed only to defending the insular settler community. Livni, in contrast, is dealing with the Palestinians, an issue that impacts the entire world. Therefore, her strategy should be to go global.

Livni should travel the world, from Norway to Vermont, from Argentina to the Vatican. She should meet the new Pope and ask him to call on all Catholics to pray for a cessation of settlements. What will happen when the newspapers have headlines like, "Pontiff says Obama must strong-arm Israel on Settlements"? Catholic Europe will stir with protests, and even the staid Northern Europeans will be aroused to action.

With hard work and a strategy that makes use of international leverage, Livni might be able to outsmart Bennett and win the day. Once Netanyahu recognizes that he cannot avoid international pressure to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, he will oblige Livni by enacting a settlement freeze. It doesn't matter whether Bennett and his people leave the government; Labor Party leader Shelley Yachimovich declared that she is ready to step in the breach. Addressing Netanyahu at the Knesset plenary, she said, "If you get even to an interim agreement… I promise you, what I said to you face-to-face… we will join your government in order to see through such a move."

Given this less than ideal outcome, the key to renewing the peace process must be international pressure on Netanyahu. He must be convinced that he has to back Livni to pursue meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, even to the point of a settlement freeze over Bennett's objections. Yet neither Europe nor the United States have as of yet mustered the will to act. The Americans have shown particular weakness, having been preoccupied with the politics of the Jewish vote. Rather than leaning hard on Israel as well as the Palestinians to come to the peace table, the United States ended up suffering the embarrassment of being on the losing end of a 138-9 vote on Palestinian statehood at the U.N. last November.

We would have hoped that the United States would understand by now that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of supreme importance to its own national interest. It will do more to pacify the Arab world than any further Iraq-style wars. It will do more to end the Iranian nuclear threat than fifty air strikes against its nuclear facilities. And it will do more to end the threat of terrorism than 5,000 drone strikes.

President Obama, who scheduled his March 20 visit to coincide with the beginning of Israel's new government's term in office, knows that he has a unique opportunity to set forth what the United States expects of it. Yet to hard-boiled Israelis like Netanyahu and Bennett, his timidity makes him a laughingstock. It is high time that he steps up as the leader of the West and make it clear to Netanyahu in no uncertain terms that he expects nothing less than a settlement freeze. He should impress upon him that the United States regards the establishment of a Palestinian state as critical to America's security and to Israel's long-term security. He should even stipulate carrots and sticks to give the request teeth.

We had hoped in vain that Israel would form a government that would be inclined to give the Palestinians their state on the West Bank because it understood that ending the occupation will open the path to a new era of peace and security. Instead, we see that the Israelis are too preoccupied with their domestic problems to recognize the larger picture -- the impact of the occupation on their standing in the world and on the long-suffering Palestinians themselves. Israel is blind to the danger of the occupation, which erodes its security position with each passing day. Only Tzipi Livni understands what is at stake. In this situation, she must work with the international community to create a partnership that will press for real change. 

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