Flying home from Israel this weekend, President Barack Obama was chased by a tailwind of praise for his performance while visiting the country. As an exercise in personal diplomacy, the trip was a huge success. For three days Israelis basked in the megawattage of the president's charm. In his speech to Israeli students, he masterfully wove together Jewish history, the words of Martin Luther King, and his own early life. And when he called on Israel to recognise that Palestinians “have a right to be a free people in their own land”, the audience responded with raucous applause.
Commentators in the US and Israel have been competing to outdo each other’s plaudits. “ Seminal”, “historic” and “profound” were just a few of the epithets thrown around. One columnist at Haaretz newspaper said that, thanks to Obama’s visit, he would be giving up cynicism about the peace process for Passover.
The thinking behind Obama’s visit was that, in order to coax Israel towards peace talks, first it must be confident of wholehearted American support. According to this view, putting pressure on Israel will merely cause it to turn inwards. Only once it feels thoroughly coddled by the American superpower will it be prepared to take risks for peace.
You can understand this logic. Jewish history has written the fear of annihilation into Israel’s DNA, and no number of F-16s or secret nuclear warheads can change that. Traumatised by their past, many Israelis see Palestinians as a reincarnation of their historic tormenters, waiting to pounce at the slightest sign of vulnerability. To compromise or show weakness is to risk destruction.
But the simple fact is this: the greatest threat to Israel’s future comes not from Qassam rockets or Iran’s nuclear programme, but from its own policies. Israel can pursue land or peace, but not both. As Obama said in his speech: “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine.”
If Israel continues to hold on to the Occupied Territories, there will soon be a Jewish minority ruling over a disenfranchised Arab majority. At some point, the growth of illegal West Bank settlements will mean this situation cannot be reversed, and Israel will be forced to choose between being Jewish or democratic. When that day arrives, it will have succeeded where Hamas and Hizbollah have failed, and put an end to the Zionist dream once and for all.
For all his fine words on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Obama was surprisingly limp on this issue, calling the settlements ‘ counter-productive’ and declining to reiterate his demand for a building freeze before peace talks resume. This is like telling a drug addict that taking heroin is ‘counter-productive’. It is all very well for Obama to reassure Israelis he is on their side. But until he uses his leverage to force Israel to change its behaviour, he is merely enabling its deadly addiction to Palestinian land.
And make no mistake, Obama has plenty of leverage at his disposal – if he chooses to use it. True, the president may not be about to send in the 101 Airborne to liberate the Occupied Territories. But Israel, already isolated in the interational community, would have no choice but to change course without US financial, diplomatic and military underwriting. If Obama were serious about ending the occupation, he would follow ‘ Operation Desert Schmooze’ by reconsidering the various forms of backing America gives its ally: monetary aid, carte blanche support at the United Nations, and close coordination on trade, intelligence and military operations.
This would hardly be unprecedented. The modern peace process was kickstarted in 1991 when George H. W. Bush invited the Palestinians to a peace conference at Madrid – and ordered Israel to show up. Yitzakh Shamir, a right-wing Likud prime minister with rejectionism in his bones, did everything he could to drag his heels. But when Bush threatened to withhold US loan guarantees, Shamir quickly fell into line and packed his bags to attend the first ever Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Two years later, the Oslo Accords were signed.
Most Israelis still want peace: when Obama spoke soaringly of a Palestinian state, the audience rose to its feet and cheered. But it will take more than photo-ops and sweet talk to move Israel’s hard-nosed leaders. To do that, Obama needs to tell them that American patience is not limitless. He must say that, unless Israel takes real steps towards ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state, it can no longer count on unconditional American support. “It’s important to be honest, especially with your friends,” said the president. But honesty is not enough. Real friends don’t just stand there smiling while the cameras flash and those they love slowly destroy themselves.