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A victory for Netanyahu and for clarity

Now that Oslo is truly dead and buried, the international community can confront reality

March 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

My immediate reaction to the outcome of the March 17 Israeli election is that for Palestinian solidarity purposes, it was desirable for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to receive this electoral mandate. Why? It exhibits as clearly as possible to all parties that the long discredited Oslo peace process is truly defunct.

But don’t believe that the call for bilateral talks will not be revived within the ranks of the so-called liberal Zionists. Already Israeli commentators, including Likud operatives, are saying that Israel would welcome a resumption of direct negotiations. In the words of Likud Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, “We would be delighted to renew the negotiations … It is to the benefit of both parties.”

Really? How have the Palestinians benefited during the past 22 years from these negotiations, during which the Israelis have slowly but relentlessly annexed the West Bank and ethnically cleansed East Jerusalem past the point of return?

As for the embarrassment of Netanyahu’s pledge in the closing days of his campaign never to establish a Palestinian state, it can be put aside; we all know that Bibi is a pragmatist who knows the difference between campaigning and governing. As a prominent Israeli think tank figure, Grin Grinstein, put it, now that Netanyahu is securely elected, he can shift attention to his legacy and will want to avoid Israel’s international isolation. “I would not rule out his going back to the two-state solution,” Grinstein said.

Neither would I, at least rhetorically and opportunistically. It should have long been obvious that there has never been an Israeli willingness to endorse a viable Palestinian state based on the equality of the two peoples, the sine qua non of a sustainable peace based on implementing the two-state consensus.

An end to denial

If the Zionist Union coalition of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni had been elected, liberal Zionists would have had a field day proclaiming a new dawn, restoring goodwill and intergovernmental harmony in relations between Washington and Jerusalem. Even now a leading liberal Zionist, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, is throwing his support behind the idea of a national unity government that would supposedly rein in the extremist tendencies of Netanyahu. It has been reported that Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president and a Likud member, will seek to form such a unity government on the basis of the election results. Although he is an avowed Zionist maximalist who favors one state in historic Palestine, Rivlin is, unlike Netanyahu, an advocate of human rights and equality for Palestinians living within whatever boundaries Israel achieves.

Principled liberal Zionists, such as Rabbi Michael Lerner and even more the admirable Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, view Netanyahu’s re-election as an unconditional disaster both for what it means for Israel’s governing policies and for what it tells us about the prevailing political culture of racism and militarism in Israel. In contrast, Thomas Friedman, an ideological liberal Zionist, paints the emergent picture in such a way as to distribute an equal portion of blame to the Palestinians — both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Ponder these slanted words he wrote in The New York Times:

It would be wrong, though, to put all of this [blame] on Netanyahu. The insane, worthless Gaza war that Hamas initiated last summer that brought rockets to the edge of Israel’s main international airport and the Palestinians’ spurning of two-state offers of previous Israeli prime ministers (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert) built Netanyahu’s base as much as he did.

This pattern of distributing responsibility for the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people and the denial of their most fundamental rights is the most revealing signature of ideological liberal Zionists purporting to be objective and balanced in assessing responsibility.

The Iran card has proved exceedingly helpful to Netanyahu, allowing him both to play on Israeli fears and to divert attention from Israel’s refusal to act reasonably and lawfully with respect to the Palestinians.

It is thus unsurprising that the most credible advocates of Palestinian justice, including Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah and Israeli writer Gilad Atzmon, agree that it is better that Netanyahu and Likud prevailed than their supposedly centrist opponents. In their more optimistic reflections, Netanyahu’s triumph should at least quietly bury Oslo-generated delusions regarding a diplomatic settlement of the conflict and awaken Western public opinion to the true nature of Israeli ambitions, which reminds people throughout the world that a positive outcome for Palestinians is a matter of struggle and not, at this stage, diplomacy. A positive future depends on Palestinians’ waging and winning a war of legitimacy directed at realizing Palestinian rights under international law. (This is the central argument of my recently published “Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope”; see also Abunimah’s “The Battle for Justice in Palestine.”)

Setback for Iran detente

The Netanyahu outcome, however, cannot be assessed exclusively through a Palestinian lens. The implications for broader regional issues of a Netanyahu-controlled foreign security policy should not be overlooked, nor the grave danger of coordination between the militarist approach to the Islamic world of Likud and the Republican Party in the United States. This most obviously pertains to the prospects for a stable resolution of tensions with Iran. If the Netanyahu-Republican approach prevails, it will likely have at least two harmful effects: shifting the internal Iranian balance toward a harder line and creating pressures in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East to move closer to the acquisition of nuclear weaponry, which would probably lead to a regional arms race, including the proliferation or near proliferation of nuclear weapons, or be the proximate cause of one more devastating regional war.

Of course, the Netanyahu-Republican alliance sees things differently, more in the spirit of poker, supposing that raising the stakes in the game still higher will prompt Iran to fold. This does not appear plausible. If Iran’s efforts to accommodate the West by accepting an unprecedented level of regulation and forgoing a nuclear option fails, despite Israel’s nuclear arsenal and threatening posture, why would a harder-line Iranian leadership be willing to relent more than its moderate predecessors?

From this vantage point, the Lerner view of the Netanyahu victory as a major disaster for Israel and the rest of the world has some merit, although it is not yet consummated by the transformation of bluffs into policies, and it is not nearly as a dangerous as it will become if a Republican wins the presidential election in 2016. To be sure, if Hillary Clinton rises to the occasion and is elected the next U.S. president, I would not invest much hope that she will challenge the Netanyahu approach, except possibly in matters of style and at the margins. But at least she would not be as likely to support armed confrontation with Iran.

Even with Clinton as president, a Netanyahu government would not budge on Iran. Why? The Iran card has proved exceedingly helpful to Netanyahu, allowing him both to play on Israeli fears and to divert attention from Israel’s refusal to act reasonably and lawfully with respect to the Palestinians. It is also entirely possible that Netanyahu has swallowed his own propaganda and honestly believes that Iran poses a real threat to Israel’s security and possibly survival, rather than the other way around. In light of this combination of adverse circumstances, I am not sure what I would advise the Iranian government to do at this point other than bide its time. If Netanyahu had been soundly defeated, then it would have made sense to do everything possible to reach an agreement while Barack Obama is still in office. But now to invite a repudiation of whatever is agreed on is to choose what would likely turn out to be the worst alternative available.

For these reasons, as helpful as Netanyahu’s electoral victory seems from the viewpoint of the Palestinian national movement, the Israeli election is a definite setback from the perspective of resolving the conflict with Iran. Is there any way to separate these two concerns, taking advantage of his victory in the Palestinian context while seeking to mobilize a movement favoring denuclearization of the Middle East as a vital ingredient of a peaceful future for the region? This appears to be the challenge facing those that seek justice for the Palestinians, peace for both peoples and an end to fearmongering and saber rattling in relation to Iran.

Richard Falk is an Albert G. Milbank professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and a research fellow at the Orfalea Center of Global and International Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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