We are hearing a lot about President Obama's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, a rabid right winger who was forced out of power in a corruption scandal some years ago (in Israel even Richard Nixon would have been allowed to run again after taking some time off) has pledged to (among other things) expand West Bank settlements, destroy Hamas and take a hard line against Palestinians. One thing he has scrupulously avoided saying is 'two state solution,' even though his predecessors (most notably Yitzhak Rabin) firmly committed towards pursuing the creation of a Palestinian state.
Let's hope that behind the scenes President Obama (who wants to see a fully independent Palestinian state up and running before he leaves the White House) wins the argument that he is surely having with Bibi.
And I am saying this as someone who has consistently defended the right of Israel to defend itself when attacked. It is certainly true that Israel has fought seven wars in its sixty years, and it is no secret that there are some in the middle east (including some Palestinians) who are implacably set on its destruction and the destruction of its citizens, and who will never be anything else. There are those in Israel who have feared, with some justification, that an independent Palestinian state would simply function as a base from which terrorists and armies could launch attacks against Israel. Nevertheless the best chance that Israel has to survive is to support the independence of Palestine (more on that below.)
The paranoid view that a lot of Israelis (especially those who support Netanyahu) have is best expressed in a column in Ha'aretz by Yehuda ben-Meir:
The sad truth is that the State of Israel will face a confrontation with the Obama administration, irrespective of the public outcome of the meeting between the U.S. president and Israel's prime minister....
It isn't pleasant, but anyone reading between the lines is beginning to understand that the Obama administration is becoming increasingly like the Carter administration. For 30 years, Israel has not had to deal with as difficult - sometimes even hostile - a U.S. administration as the Carter one. I can personally attest to the brutal style and blatant threats that characterized the relationship between Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin. Indeed, Carter is someone whose beginnings can be seen in the way he has ended up.
OK, rebutting that will lead to why Israel must negotiate seriously and with the goal of an independent Palestinian state.
First off, let's even suppose that what Meir is claiming about Jimmy Carter were true. The fact is, Carter secured (however he did it) a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel. Egypt, with a much larger population base and army than Israel could ever hope to put in the field, was always Israel's most dangerous enemy. Fortunately for the Israelis the Egyptians fought poorly in each of the four wars between the two nations, but to assume that your opponent will always perform as poorly as they have in the past is foolish. In exchange for returning the occupied Sinai peninsula back to Egypt, Israel secured its first lasting peace with one of its neighbors. It is hard to argue that continuing to fight periodic wars with Egypt would have served Israeli interests at all. Having peace along its southwestern border has served Israel pretty well. Jordan later followed Egypt's lead, giving Israel peace along most of its eastern border as well. So his point about Carter is irrelevant-- what Carter did has been a real benefit to Israel. If he had to drag Begin kicking and screaming to the negotiating table, well then that's one of the best things Carter ever did-- and it's one of the best things that anyone ever did for Israel.
Second, let's consider the consequence of the fact that the Bush administration gave Israel carte blanche for eight years to do as it pleased. It would be almost impossible to argue that the last eight years have improved Israeli security. Israel has fought two wars against non-state organizations, Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas last year, and both of them are still alive and kicking after surviving several weeks of Israeli assaults, and both have shown their ability to launch thousands of rockets deep inside Israel. Israel has not weakened Hezbollah at all and while they arguably weakened Hamas militarily they did nothing to weaken Hamas' hold on the Gaza strip.
In fact, the only real gain that Israel has made in improving their security is a consequence of something that they had no control over, the death of Yassir Arafat. In 2001 as Bush took office you may recall they were fighting a new 'intifada' in the West Bank. This began shortly after Arafat walked away from a Clinton negotiated peace deal with Ehud Barak that came tantalizingly close to fruition. A Palestinian friend of mine told me that the reason was because most Palestinians thought Arafat was a joke who had robbed the Palestinians of billions of dollars (and after he died it was found that what the people thought was true, and that in fact Arafat had accumulated a fortune in banks around the world-- money that could have only come from the Palestinian treasury since he had little other income.) As my friend told me, "Arafat has the authority to say 'yes'" In other words Palestinians would only support him as far as he was willing to condone whatever they did anyway. So having no ability to control his own 'supporters' the Israelis were justified in their concern that any agreement they reached with Yassir Arafat would probably be violated, whether by his own choice or because what his choice was didn't matter.
In contrast, current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has proven that he can adequately police the West Bank. During both the Hezbollah and Hamas wars it is noteworthy that there were no rockets fired from the west bank into Israel nor were there attacks there on Jewish settlers (though both Hezbollah and Hamas urged west bank Palestinians to rise up in support of their cause.) By keeping the west bank calm and quiet even during a war in which Israel was being attacked, Abbas has shown that he is exactly the partner that Israel needs for negotiations-- someone who can be trusted to keep and enforce his side of the agreement.
The alternative is endless war. The Palestinian issue isn't going anywhere as long as there is no Palestinian state. The broad agreement is already in place, via the Oslo accords and general consensus that the borders will likely follow the 1967 cease fire lines.
And in a turn about, it is now the Palestinians who have a leader who can be trusted, and the Israelis who (as one Israeli politician once said about the Palestinians) are taking the opportunity to miss an opportunity.