The crisis with the United States shows us for the umpteenth time that ambiguity is indeed a positive thing, as long as both sides enjoy it. When one of the sides, and especially if it’s a superpower, decides to call a spade a spade, a new reality emerges. The modified reality or a change in the rules of the game is tolerable as long as it is coordinated in advance. Yet such change causes grave damage once it’s being undertaken without advance notice by the strong side (the US), and this is precisely what happened during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit in Washington.
In December 2000, President Bill Clinton presented his plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was not a list of abstract principle, but rather, concrete geographical, technical, and numerical proposals for resolving each of the core issues – borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, refugees, and so on.
Ever since then, the notion of the two-state solution in the eyes of any US Administration, and certainly a Democratic one, has been a codename for Clinton’s plan. Its essence is as follows: Two states between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, with the border between them premised on the 1967 boundaries (with minor changes,) a divided Jerusalem, limits on the Palestinian state’s militarization, and no return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
To the Americans, as well as to the parties to the conflict, it’s clear that a final-status agreement on the basis of two states is the Clinton plan with minor adjustments, regardless of who the negotiators are.
For nine years – George W. Bush’s eight years in office and Obama’s one year – the Americans and Israelis preferred to make do with agreement on the ambiguous principle of two states. Both Prime Minister Sharon and PM Netanyahu were able to live with this abstract concept. It was convenient for both the US and Israel to explain that the nature of the final-status agreement is unknown, and it will be subject to negotiations between the two sides.
Alternate proposals neededYet recently, Obama decided to no longer make do with the codename and ensure that Netanyahu also understands and agrees that endorsing the “two-status solution” means endorsing Clinton’s plan. This caused great embarrassment. PM Netanyahu assumed that real answers, if at all, will be needed only during the negotiations, yet he was asked to provide them here and now.
Much has been written about the errors made in respect to the prime minister’s recent trip to the US. These were indeed serious errors, but most of them were tactical. The real mistake is different: Netanyahu thinks that the Clinton plan is bad for Israel; he also knows that he cannot implement it even if he wished to do so.
In his first meeting with Obama, about a year ago, Netanyahu should have said: “The Clinton plan is invalid. It was no coincidence that both sided rejected it in 2000. As I agree that it’s important that we resolve the conflict, I would like to present you with alternate proposals or significant improvements (which are available, and Netanyahu is well familiar with them.) Please allow an Israeli-American team to discretely look into these different ideas for three months before you formulate your opinion.”
Instead, Netanyahu officially endorsed the Clinton plan (which, as noted, is the only American interpretation of the “two-state solution.”) Yet when Obama asked him to say explicitly what he seemingly said in his Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu found it difficult to speak.
The American conclusions of this are grim: Firstly, Israel has no alternate ideas. Secondly, the Clinton plan is the only solution and there is nothing else. Thirdly, Israel’s prime minister is an unreliable person.
The distance from these conclusions to a situation whereby the US dictates a plan, including a binding timetable, is short. Ironically, we can assume that the main possibility to get out of this problematic situation stems from the fact that the Palestinians also cannot accept the Clinton plan (recognition of a Jewish state, a declaration that they have no more demands, and renunciation of the right of return.) In fact, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was not willing to even discuss the Clinton model with PM Olmert.