Midterms and the Middle East

Midterm elections resulted in a clear defeat of Obama and the Democratic Party. This left Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with an opportunity to take advantage of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, as he did during the Clinton years, to counterweight pressure from the White House.

Netanyahu is noticeably more confident in his assumed power to refuse peace initiatives and instead pressure the U.S., as well as the rest of the international community, to push for stronger military action and tougher sanctions on Iran. Netanyahu’s confidence in a pro-Israeli House in the U.S. was confirmed in a recent meeting with Republican Eric Cantor, a GOP leader in the House of Representatives, who stated that he wanted to work with Netanyahu to “put a check on the administration.”

The election results have shown that the majority of Americans are clearly not satisfied with Obama’s current policies. Therefore, many believe that when the midterm election results come into play in January, Obama will focus more on domestic policy and push U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East aside. This is far from the truth. Obama has expressed that his U.S. foreign policy will not change as a result of his recent loss. He, along with the rest of his administration, is still very unwavering in his determination to reach a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.

On Wednesday, Nov. 11, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Netanyahu met in New York where they spoke for hours. Both politicians described the talk as “friendly and productive.” but this was hardly the case. Clinton demanded that Israel agree to at least a freeze of all Jewish construction in the West Bank, as well as a major slow-down on Jewish building in East Jerusalem. However, Netanyahu did not agree to slow down construction for even a day. He is instead allowing new construction of 1,300 housing units in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, as well as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, agree that the settlements in East Jerusalem, having never been a part of the original 10-month moratorium, do not account for a recognizable fraction of the peace map. They also view further settlement construction in East Jerusalem as being perfectly legal since Jerusalem is the assumed capital of Israel. They feel it is illogical to believe that the possibility of reaching a peace agreement will never happen if settlement construction continues. The Palestinians, on the other hand, see things differently. The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly expressed its refusal to continue direct talks if Netanyahu does not stop settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land.

Palestinians see East Jerusalem not only as being occupied land, but most importantly, the capitol of their future Palestinian state. They are not alone in this; the Obama administration also aims for the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state through a two-state solution divided along the 1967 borders with land swaps. They agree that Israel’s current policies on settlements are counterproductive to peace.

Not only has Netanyahu been unwilling to hold back construction in the occupied West Bank or East Jerusalem, he has pushed the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a move that Palestinians fear will undermine Arab minority rights in Israel and preempt the right of return for those who fled during the 1948 War. He also refuses the release of political prisoners, a removal of movement restrictions or a halt to home demolitions, evictions and the stripping of residency rights, all because he doesn’t want to risk breaking apart his coalition. Netanyahu also believes that Jerusalem is an issue that is to be discussed on the negotiation table. The problem with this is that a fair negotiation cannot occur if unilateral circumstances are practically concrete.

Consider a similar situation in which two people are sitting in the car, one in the back seat, the other in the driver’s seat, trying to decide where to go. Before they can make a decision, the driver has already driven all the way to the location of his choice. See the dilemma?

It is now up to Obama to decide whether he will use these last two years as a campaign for re-election, or to do as he initially promised in the first month of his term: to commit to achieving a peace agreement that will only be possible by putting pressure on Israel. It is also up to Netanyahu to make some sacrifices and decide what is most important: settlement building or a direct path for peace and security that both Israel and Palestine can enjoy.

The PA has agreed to give the Obama administration more time to convince Israel to freeze settlements. In a meeting held just this past weekend, Netanyahu agreed to push his cabinet for a one-time renewal of the settlement freeze for 90 days in exchange for security guarantees from the United States. It is unclear, however, whether his cabinet will follow along, and the proposed freeze would still not include East Jerusalem. If Netanyahu does not quickly advance talks, the PA will ask the U.S. to support its steps toward the declaration of a Palestinian state outside of talks with Israel, including those held at the United Nations.

Finally, I hope we can all agree that the status quo must be altered. Israel’s unilateral policies are not only making it less likely to reach a solution that the Palestinians will be willing to accept, but is also pushing the Palestinians off the negotiating table before they even decide to get back on. Don’t give Netanyahu too much credit, as this is not a novel strategy. Throughout a negotiations process lasting more than 19 years, the Israeli settler population has nearly doubled: from 236,000 in 1993 to over half a million today. Sadly, history is repeating itself in a way that is perpetuating a conflict far past its ideal expiration date.

Nesma Tawil is a first-year Biomedical Engineering major. She can be reached at ntawil@uci.edu.