U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace mission to the Middle East is semi-quixotic, if not wholly quixotic. I doubt he’ll reach his goal of negotiating a final-status agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The two sides haven’t even agreed yet to the topics they’ll discuss in negotiations.
But we should give Kerry this: He has managed to at least partially capture the attention of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. I say partially because the Netanyahu government’s self-destructive West Bank settlement program continues apace (though the latest round of construction is scheduled to take place on territory that would almost certainly be granted to Israel in final-status talks).
There are some early signs that Netanyahu is realizing the price his country may one day pay for its settlements, in particular those near Palestinian population centers. He met recently with some of Israel’s leading manufacturers, who expressed their worry that their products may one day be boycotted in Europe, a worry he shares. Kerry, capitalizing on this anxiety, has warned Netanyahu in recent weeks that if the current peace talks bear no fruit, Israel may soon be facing an international delegitimization campaign — in his words — “on steroids.”
According to officials I have spoken to, who requested anonymity so they could speak freely, Kerry thinks the one thing Netanyahu fears as much as Iran’s nuclear program is the growing power of the international movement that seeks to isolate, scapegoat and demonize his country. (One caveat: Kerry, like most Americans who know Netanyahu, understands that the prime minister’s narrowest but most potent fear is of being unseated.)
Although Netanyahu is worried that the campaign to make Israel appear to be an illegitimate state could hurt the country’s robust economy, he is said to be even more worried that this campaign will erode Israel’s ability to defend itself. The theory is simple: A country seen as illegitimate, not only by the powerful Arab lobby at the United Nations but also by Western powers, will have little standing if it is forced to retaliate against sustained attacks from groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which remain committed to Israel’s extermination. Netanyahu thinks that the campaign to delegitimize Israel could force Western powers to rein in Israel, or at the very least, rush to condemn it before it has the chance to defend itself.
Netanyahu’s two fears are related. Israel will find it increasingly difficult to one day act against the Iranian nuclear program if it is hobbled by the hostility of the international community. For years, I’ve been arguing that Israel would find more sympathy in its campaign against Iranian nukes if it was more willing to compromise with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, unlike other prominent figures on the Israeli right, has agreed in principle to a two-state solution, but he hasn’t done very much to bring it about — he has only grudgingly and temporarily suspended expansions of the settlements located on land that would almost surely be part of the future state of Palestine.
But Netanyahu has lately been leaning in the direction of the Israeli political center. And by doing this he is making the truculent base of his party, the Likud, quite nervous. Netanyahu, I’m told, has taken to disparaging some of the politicians to his right as “insane.” These are the politicians who delude themselves into thinking that their country is a superpower, and can behave as one.
So, when the European Union recently issued guidelines that will restrict its members from (among other things) funding research conducted on the far side of Israel’s 1967 borders, these politicians decided, in their wisdom, that Israel should engage in a partial boycott of the EU. They’re demanding that Israel withdraw from a lucrative EU-sponsored research-funding program to protest the settlement exclusion guidelines. Netanyahu also finds the new EU guidelines reprehensible (and they are, in fact, highly problematic, potentially placing settlers in the far-flung Jewish colonies of the West Bank in the same category as Jewish residents of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City). But he understands that he can’t win a fight with the entire EU if it decides to enact a partial boycott of his country. On the one hand, EU hostility toward Israel isn’t particularly helpful to Kerry or his chief negotiator, Martin Indyk. Threats directed at Israel from Europe, the continent whose cruelty and hatred helped create a need for a Jewish national refuge in the first place, may, in the short term, bolster Israel’s far-right, which could handcuff Netanyahu in negotiations.
On the other hand, the majority of Israelis are sensible, and they know, as Netanyahu knows, that Israel can’t exist in an entirely friendless world. Partly because of the actions of the EU, Netanyahu is listening to Kerry’s warnings with newly open ears.