Up Front

Web Chat: Reacting to Netanyahu’s Congressional Address

Martin S. Indyk

On May 25, Martin Indyk, Brookings expert and former ambassador to Israel, took your questions in a live web chat reacting to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s May 24 address to Congress and President Obama’s latest attempt to end the stalemate between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:35 David Mark: Welcome to the chat. Let’s get started.

12:36 [Comment From Nathan Brown: ] It seems that Netanyahu could bring peace from the Likud, just like Begin, under the cover of a unity government with Kadima. I think Netanyahu is aware of this, but sees no sufficient incentive to go in that direction. Do you think Obama is hoping for, or perhaps even working for this sort of regime change in Israel?

12:38 Martin Indyk: I think Obama has basically put down a place-holder with his two points on borders and security for some time in the future when negotiations can be resumed. He has not announced any new initiative to turn those points into a negotiation (for example, he could have announced that he was issuing invitations to the two sides to resume negotiations on the basis of those two points as the terms of reference).

12:38 [Comment From Jesse: ] What was Netanyahu trying to gain from addressing Congress?

12:42 Martin Indyk: Originally, some five months ago, when the idea of Netanyahu giving a speech was first broached, his idea was to present a new Israeli peace initiative. The Obama Administration was keen for him to do this since it’s much easier for the U.S. to get behind an Israeli initiative than to pressure Israel to support an American initiative. The effort then focused on what Bibi would say in that “peace speech.” Tony Blair among others was actively involved in trying to get him to express support for a negotiation that would be based on the 67 lines with agreed swaps. When Fatah and Hamas announced their unity deal, I think Netanyahu decided that he was off the hook. How could he be expected to take a peace initiative with Hamas? So the speech shifted from being a peace speech to being a PR speech. He secured the support of the Congress, but he already had that. His problem, and Obama’s, is that he didn’t say anything that would enable the U.S. to get any other country behind Netanyahu’s approach. So, unfortunately, the process of isolating Israel will now proceed, and the U.S. will be isolated with Israel too.

12:43 [Comment From Ruth Santini: ] We have seen a very assertive Israeli leadership before and during the visit to Washington, intransigent on core issues which should be open to negotiations with the Palestinians. This seems to reflect an increasingly more intransigent attitude by the Israeli public opinion towards the idea of what ‘painful compromises’ entail. How do you think their eqaution could change? What would make them value more reaching a lasting peace?

12:45 Martin Indyk: The key is indeed Israeli public opinion. Bibi should have given his speech in the Knesset instead of the Congress. And Obama should go to Israel and address the Israeli public — that visit is long overdue. They support separation. They are concerned about the process of isolation and legitimization. They will understand that you “can’t stop something with nothing,” and they greatly value the relationship with the United States.

12:45 David Mark: PM Netanyahu insists that a final peace agreement includes an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, in territory likely to be included in a Palestinian state. How realistic might this kind of arrangement be in a peace deal?

12:50 Martin Indyk: It’s not realistic to expect that a deal that is supposed to end Israel’s occupation will result in a perpetuation of that occupation. When Netanyahu told Abu Mazen in that short negotation took place in August 2010 that he need an Israeli army presence in the Jordan Vallery for “many decades,” Abu Mazen told him he could keep his occupation and walked out. However, at the end of the Clinton Administration, Ehud Barak — then PM now Defense Minister — negotiated arrangements with Arafat’s security people that would have provided for the following arrangements:

— an Israeli army presence in the Jordan Valley as part of an International/NATO force (something the Palestinians have said they would accept) for an interim period, perhaps five years, that would allow the Israelis to test the effectiveness of the security arrangements

— provisions for the Israeli army to reenter the West Bank and deploy in the Jordan Valley in the case of an emergency

— Israeli early warning stations in the West Bank that would give early warning of any prospective emergency.

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That remains the way to square Israel’s legitimate security concerns with Palestinian sovereignty requirements.

12:50 [Comment From Bill in Va.: ] Is Obama’s “1967 borders” position a new thing like so many detractors are saying, or is it in line with USG position from Clinton through GWB?

12:54 Martin Indyk: It’s both! No U.S. President has used those words and suggested that they should be the starting point for the negotiations. However, the concept is a familiar one. Back in 1969 Secretary of State Rogers put forward the “Rogers Plan” which provided for Israeli withdrawal to the “67 lines” with “minor border rectifications.”

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In the Clinton Parameters, Clinton introduced the idea of land swaps to compensate the Palestinians for the 3-6% of the West Bank he suggested they concede to Israel to accommodate the settlement blocs.

George Bush invoked the “1949 armistice lines” with swaps as the basis for a reasonable outcome. They’re the same thing as the 1967 lines.

12:55 [Comment From Hal Woods: ] How is the “Arab Spring” really viewed in Israel? As a plus or a negative? During his speech, the Prime Minister seemed to present the “Arab Spring” with great promise but also as an enormous potential challenge.

12:59 Martin Indyk: Israelis at first were fearful of the consequences of Mubarak’s departure. He had operated a “cold peace” with Israel for three decades but they missed him when he was gone because they feared that the peace treaty would be abrogated and the Muslim Brotherhood would take over the government. They’re more relaxed about that now, although still anxious, because they have come to understand that the Egyptian Army, which still holds the ring in Egypt, has no interest in going back to war with Israel.

Same with Syria. At first they said, “better the devil you know” because Asad had at least kept the border with Israel quiet even though Israel retained the Golan Heights for the last 46 years. But now they see the advantage of destabilizing the Syrian conduit for Iranian influence at their borders (via Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and so they’re more sanguine about it.

Netanyahu and Sharansky have long argued that Arab democracies won’t go to war. So they can’t be against the Arab Awakening now.

12:59 David Mark: Thanks for joining us today.