Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Problem With Boundaries

There is something deeply unsatisfying about the reported deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and Hillary Rodham Clinton: 90 days to stop building in the West Bank in return for F-35s and various diplomatic guarantees. Presumably, the Obama administration (to paraphrase Churchill) has had to choose between humiliation and the aura of diplomatic failure. It has chosen humiliation now, and will get diplomatic failure later.

But then why is Netanyahu's cabinet in an uproar?

Because what this deal actually does is provide the various parties to the negotiation an opportunity to delineate a border. As New York Times correspondent Mark Langer writes, burying his lead:

The logic behind a 90-day extension is that the two sides would aim for a swift agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state. That would make the long dispute over settlements irrelevant since it would be clear which housing blocks fell into Israel and which fell into a Palestinian state.

As with healthcare, the administration is taking a path that is not easy to watch, but may be the most practical. I have argued here before that the US government must have, and eventually convey to the parties, a view regarding the elements of a final status agreement: more Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil. But the occasion for putting a thumb on the scales should be a negotiation over the border, not a dispute over continued settlements, which has been clouded by past negotiations over the border. Various talks between Israelis and PA officials, from the Geneva group, to the Olmert meetings, portended land swaps. These first efforts to draw lines, all of which assumed the Eztzion bloc would be part of Israel, say, cannot simply be erased from everyone's consciousness.

THE ANALOGY TO healthcare may be pushed further. The administration has been criticized for allowing Senate committees to debate the shape of the healthcare bill before committing itself to a final plan. The process was ugly; and the administration sweetened the outcome for resistant blue-dogs along the way. In the end, however, it got senators who had skin in the game, and it used their disagreements to define the "solution space" in which to intervene. And once (as Jonathan Cohn has shown) Obama saw the shape of the bill he could get, he still had to choose: let it go, for political reasons, or campaign for it, for historical ones. Had he not chosen the latter course, we would not have had a health reform bill at all.

Something like this moment is now in the offing in the Middle East. What the administration has done is allow Netanyahu the equivalent of (forgive me) pork to bring the Israeli state, so that the most critical issue defining a Palestinian state can be brought into relief. Israeli ministers most vociferously opposed to any state are justifiably in a panic (a "honey-trap" says Moshe Yaalon). Like Republicans who had hoped to kill any reform in committee, they are not so much convinced that they have lost the game as understand that now they are in one.

This is not to say the actual placement of a border is going to prove all that important in the long run: Israel and Palestine will be two interlocking city-states in any event. Still, it is crucial to have one somewhere, so that each city-state will know where its zoning rights begin and end. Anyway, the debate over the definition of a border will immediately occasion a triangular split in the Israeli government right between Land of Israel fanatics, for whom no settlement is a bridge too far, Orthodox fixers, and mere reactionaries, for whom Jerusalem is the main chance and security guarantees actually matter, and globalists, who fear most of all international isolation if the PA collapses and relations with Washington get freighted.

So the Netanyahu-Clinton agreement, should it be accepted by all sides, will not save Obama from choosing. Ensuing negotiations, over the next couple of months, will almost certainly not produce an agreement. But they will define the solution space Obama will have to move into and the line he will have to publicly fight for.  It will tee-up perhaps the most important foreign policy test of his presidency, and set up the right moment to visit Jerusalem. As with President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis--who had previously been thought weak, but proved how shows of strength require a sense of timing--it may be Obama's best chance to reignite the global hopes invested in him.