By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
What would be the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority today, had Obama made the speech he now made in Jerusalem at the beginning of his first four-year term as president rather than at the beginning of the second? Not only would much of the allegedly toxic atmosphere between him and Netanyahu been prevented but, more important, his appeal to the youth of Israel, indeed the Israeli public at large, to push its government toward peace could have been heeded more effectively.
Now in the wake of recent elections in Israel and only days after the new government was sworn in, pushing it in a direction it may not want to go is likely to have little effect for the next four years or so until the Israelis go to the polls again. By then Obama may be out of office and the words he spoke in Jerusalem in 2013 long forgotten.
Of course, in theory one of the coalition partners – Yesh Atid comes to mind – could pull out earlier and force an election sooner, but as things are at present, a party that would precipitate an election is likely to be punished by the voters. This is a strong enough reason to make sure that it won’t happen.
As brilliant and as moving as the Obama speech was, it’s difficult to see that it’s likely to influence Israeli government policy in the next few years, which will probably continue to be perceived in the world as uncooperative with the Palestinian Authority.
That’s not to say that the Palestinians are eager to negotiate with Israel without preconditions that Israel cannot accept. But it does mean that the Government of Israel will (legitimately?) exploit Palestinians’ hard line to its own advantage. In view of the Zionist content of Obama’s speech and his pledge of unconditional support for Israel, the status quo is likely to remain: perhaps under better management but without a solution.
Yes, we’ll hear more rhetoric about the need for two states for two peoples living side by side, but actions will probably belie it. The settlements will be expanded. Naftali Bennett, the strong man of the present government, has already said that Israel doesn’t occupy the West Bank because it owns it to start with. Several of his most influential colleagues are likely to agree, including the defense and foreign ministers, and, of course, the prime minister himself.
Even the allegedly liberal Finance Minister Lapid is likely to concentrate on domestic matters and leave the relationship with the Palestinians to Netanyahu and Bennett (with Tsipi Livni as a front). Members of the middle class of Tel Aviv and its region that Lapid represents are probably more interested in matters that affect their daily lives than in diplomacy emanating from Jerusalem.
That interest includes defense, because their lives and the lives of their children are shaped by army service – and thus their insistence that the haredim share in the burden – but they know that a peace treaty will in no way diminish the need for a militarily strong Israel to protect itself against its less than stable neighbours.
It may not be nice to pour cold water, however gently, on the historic speech by the President of the United States to the People of Israel and to question whether it’s the kind of game changer we all yearn for. Unfortunately, it’s probably realistic.
Nevertheless, knowing that the world’s most powerful man shares the Zionist vision of most Israelis is a source of great comfort and strength to be celebrated.