Newsweek excerpts Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, in which Beinart writes that Benjamin Netanyahu arrived to meet with President Obama in May 2009 with a “lack of interest in negotiations” — while Mahmoud Abbas arrived “eager to carry on the talks he had been pursuing with Netanyahu’s predecessor.” Beinart’s description is not only inconsistent with the public record, but distorts what Netanyahu tried to do in May 2009.
On May 18, 2009, sitting beside Obama, Netanyahu said he wanted “to start peace negotiations with the Palestinians immediately” and thought an agreement could be reached if they recognized Israel as a Jewish state with the means to defend itself; (2) on May 28, 2009, the supposedly eager Abbas told the Washington Post, the day before his own meeting with Obama, that he planned to do nothing but sit back and watch the Obama administration slowly squeeze Netanyahu from office.
Beinart tries to support his backwards history with a quote from a May 2009 presentation by Netanyahu’s top aide, Ron Dermer. I remember the quote; it comes from a video I posted at YouTube on May 3, 2009 and described in Contentions the next day. Here is the single sentence Beinart quotes from Dermer’s 20-minute presentation:
“There is no way now where you have on the Palestinian side a willingness to make the sorts of compromises that will be required for a deal on the core issues but yet despite that the previous government decided to negotiate and negotiate and negotiate and to focus on that and to bang their head against the wall.”
And here is an extended excerpt from Dermer’s remarks (with the portion Beinart quoted in italics, so readers can judge if Beinart accurately conveyed the gist of Dermer’s presentation):
[The path to peace] connects with something David [Makovsky] said. David said there’s a top-down approach and there’s a bottom-up approach. Netanyahu believes you have to combine both of those — which is why he has argued for a three-track approach to peace. There are two tracks that we consider bottom up, which is security and the economy. And there’s a third track – political negotiations.
Now what happened at Annapolis was that the government almost exclusively focused on political negotiations. They invested all their energies, almost all their efforts, in reaching an elusive agreement. And I agree with Aaron [David Miller] that there is no way now where you have on the Palestinian side a willingness to make the sorts of compromises that will be required for a deal on the core issues.
But yet despite that, the previous government just decided to negotiate, and negotiate, and negotiate, and to focus on that. They banged their head against the wall over and over and over again. And there is limited political capital in Israel, just as there is anywhere else; if you are focused on that — well then you are not focused on changing the reality on the ground. What Netanyahu will do – and you will see it I think in a rather dramatic fashion in the next two years particularly – is to work to change the reality on the ground.
First there’s security, which General Dayton is doing; he is recruiting and training Palestinian security forces … [The economic track] is led by Tony Blair … I’ve been in a few meetings with the prime minister and Tony Blair, and I am amazed at how many bureaucratic obstacles there are to Palestinian economic development. … [B]ut when you have a government focused on making the peace to end all peace, the deal of the century, and you don’t have a prime minister who takes the gavel and rolls up his sleeves and works day after day to move the bureaucracy along and to get through all the red tape, nothing will happen on the ground …
And the idea is that through economic development and through security cooperation you can create a context, a context where political progress is possible. What has happened up to now is to try to basically build a pyramid from the top down. It doesn’t work that way. You have to step by step, layer and layer, have the Palestinians have rule of law, have a decent economy, provide jobs, provide hope, and slowly but surely you actually build lots of stakeholders. ….
I am not of the school of thought that says, well if you just give everybody an extra refrigerator, they are going to give up their identity. It doesn’t work that way. But you can moderate the conflict through economic development – it’s happened in many places around the world – Cyprus is one of them, Northern Ireland is another one; there are many, many examples. So this is what makes it possible.
The Clinton peace process ended in a war, after Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state. The Bush peace process ended in another war, after Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians a state. The peace process designed by the man Beinart calls the “Jewish president” required Abbas only to watch, as Obama reneged on prior oral and written agreements with Israel, sought to put daylight between it and America, bypassed it on successive trips to the region, and publicly humiliated Netanyahu on his own trips to Washington. Obama demanded that Netanyahu recognize a Palestinian state in his Bar-Ilan speech, but never demanded Abbas give a Bir Zeit speech recognizing a Jewish one.
Netanyahu came to Washington with a new approach – one that might create a context in which negotiations could succeed. He was met by Obama’s rejection of prior American commitments, an insistence on preconditions that had never been a condition of negotiations before, and a refusal to negotiate by the supposedly eager Abbas, as part of a strategy to bring down the Israeli prime minister. As Ron Dermer might say, it doesn’t work that way.