Q&A: “US ‘Grand Bargain’ Can Save Israel From Itself“

Jerusalem – Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the two-state parameters seems less likely with Israel torn between accepting a Palestinian state and the settler ideology which calls for Israel’s exclusive rule over the whole of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

David Landau, formerly editor-in-chief of Israel’s prestigious daily, ‘Haaretz’, and regarded as one of Israel’s top journalists, spoke with IPS’s Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler about a Middle East precariously poised between war and peace, with U.S.President Barack Obama holding the key to the region’s predicament.

Landau is the author of several books including “Piety and Power” on the political ascendancy of Orthodox religious Jews and a political biography of Israeli President Shimon Peres. He is currently working on the definitive biography of the former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to be published next year by Alfred E.Knopf.

IPS: Isn’t a two-state solution in fact less relevant now that Israel is fast splitting into two nations?

David Landau: I accept that definition of two Israels, but what’s more relevant is the two Israels which are both in [Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu’s head. Actually there’s a bifurcation between Bibi’s head and heart. In his head he fully understands Israel’s fundamental interests, but in his heart he is with the hard-line Right. That now means the religious right, no longer – as had been the case two decades ago or when Netanyahu was last in power at the end of the 90s – is there any distinction between the religious ideology which drives the settler movement and what used to be the secular nationalist camp. That largely non-religious nationalist camp has been overwhelmed by the settler ideology.

IPS: So, you mean it’s Netanyahu’s heart that’s dictating…

DL: In fact, that settler ideology has been running the country for the past two decades – apart from what were, sadly, only a few brief interludes. A statement which then US undersecretary of state George Ball made some 20 years ago that “the US needs to save Israel from itself” is now more applicable than ever. You could say it’s in the hands of the US president to save half of Bibi from the other half of Bibi or, to use your words, one Israel from the other.

IPS: Is that where Barack Obama is going?

DL: We certainly hoped at the time of his Cairo University speech in June that it would be so. Now, with his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, I hope anew. The moment of truth will come with his policy towards Iran. It would be the Grand Bargain – the protection of Israel from Iran alongside the protection of Israel from Israel itself, that is, Israel entering into an agreement with the Palestinians by withdrawing from the West Bank.

If you fuse the two Bibis, head and heart, you get the quintessential Bibi, the man dedicated to heading off what all Israelis regard as an existential threat, that from a nuclear Iran. If you confront Netanyahu with a policy that saves Israel both from that existential threat, and from itself by ending its rule over the Palestinians – that’s the Grand Bargain, he will have no option but to take it. The Israeli public will not let him refuse it.

IPS: But isn’t that same Israeli public drifting into accepting the supremacy of the settler ideology?

DL: I don’t accept that premise. It doesn’t take into account the fact that mainstream Israel has moved far to the Left compared to where it was 15 years ago; the dream of endless occupation and digging in into the West Bank is now the province of the rightist margins alone, no longer the platform even of the main rightist groups within Israel.

IPS: But surely Netanyahu is allowing what you call the margins to call the shots…

DL: I accept that. Netanyahu is enabling that to happen. But if the US president were to translate his words into action, he would meet a broad swathe of Israeli public opinion. Settlement construction lies on a very thin layer of public opinion. After [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, and even before him, the debate between left and right is no longer where it used to be, i.e., not any more how long can you retain the West Bank, but how much of it you can retain.

IPS: Going back to your “Grand Bargain”, does Obama realise the powerful weapon he can wield in impelling Israel to leave the West Bank by, as you say, guaranteeing Israel’s protection against a Iranian nuclear threat?

DL: For the past decade by constantly warning against that threat, Bibi has himself armed Obama with that weapon, and I don’t say that cynically. One would hope that Obama realizes the strength he wields with that potential deal. Instead, he launched that counter-productive, doomed-to-fail settlement freeze. In the longer term this initial ill-conceived foray into Middle East peace-making will come to be seen as a sort of excrescence of frustration and impatience towards Bibi Netanyahu which Obama inherited from the Clintons. This was all the more vivid because Mrs. Clinton became Secretary of State. It was visceral and impolitic, a settling of old scores, if you like. The President over-played his hand: Don’t make politics if you’re visceral.

IPS: You’re immersed in your biography of Sharon. In the context of current events, can you give us an inkling of the primary theme?

DL: The relevance is that Sharon proved that everything we’ve been talking about is manageable – if you’re a leader with determination, and if you’re sufficiently sagacious to see the proper balance of interests of you state. The bugbear of the settler threat, their hold over the geist of Israel, their arrogation of Zionism and patriotism can be challenged and defeated. Sharon demonstrated that in 2005 with his enforced evacuation of the settlers from Gaza. Although the settlers had been warning the country that Sharon was leading them to ruin, immediately after the withdrawal the whole country went off on a summer holiday. In contrast, with Netanyahu’s blessing, they are currently trying to make people forget what they had forgotten, trying to remind them that it will be another “national trauma” if settlements are removed from the West Bank.

IPS: What happens now?

DL: The Americans, the world, should say we’re pressing on and making peace with Bibi, or without him. By trying to understand his so-called dilemmas they are playing into his hands. After all, we’ve had ten years of international diplomacy predicated on the Clinton parameters of December 2000 [which set out the borders between Israel and Palestine roughly along the pre-67 lines with agreed territorial swaps]. This informed the policy of Bush, the Quartet, and it is still informing US policy today.

IPS: What you’re saying is that Obama should draw the borders of Israel based on those Clinton parameters…

DL: Precisely. Still, we shouldn’t ignore another aspect in the failed peace-making until now – the ineptness of Palestinian diplomacy and leadership. We thought that the failure of peace-making lay in the tragic inability of Yasser Arafat to take the historical decision about accepting Israel’s right to exist. Sadly, it may not be just Arafat – it may be an endemic PLO failure, that they are just not prepared to come to terms on any terms – terms beyond which Israel cannot go.

Such terms were offered by [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert before he was forced out of office. Understandably, the Palestinians were wary of Olmert being a lame duck and thus being unable to deliver. But, they should surely have responded. They made a terrible blunder by ignoring the Olmert terms.

IPS: Is there any future for peace-making?

DL: The settlement freeze idea was a blip. But Obama still has his chance. He could enshrine the Clinton parameters as the basis of a US Mid-East policy that would include incredible concessions by Israel on settlements in return for US protection for Israel. That’s what I mean when I talk about the Grand Bargain.