Politics sometimes presents nations with strange opportunities; so now for Israel. All it takes is will and leadership. The challenge will be whether it can take advantage of it at home, in the region, and in the world community.
In the Arab world, the general focus of the people in the streets has clearly been on the fundamental issues of reform: political, economic, and social. The demonstrators have demanded jobs, education, health care, and vital services. So when Syrian President Assad responds to the public pressure with repressive measures and then reiterates the old bugaboo, “when in doubt blame Israel,” even the most jaundiced of observers must realize the absurdity of this hackneyed charge. Syria and Israel need to settle their disputes, but Syria’s people are pressing for internal changes, almost all of which have nothing to do with Syria’s difficulties with Israel.
Similarly, Hamas clearly chose to resume its attacks on Israel just as the people throughout the Arab world were rallying for internal change. So far they have succeeded in clamping down on their own population. It remains to be seen if the people in Gaza as well as on the West Bank seek to emulate the spreading dissent movement of their Arab brothers and sisters. (The irony is that life on the West Bank over the past three years has shown a serious, dramatic, and positive change for the better, largely as a result of the reforms instituted by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.) Seeking to arouse international concern about the plight of the Palestinians in their disputes with Israel, they assumed that a renewed aerial rocket attack on Israel at this time would produce a sympathetic response.
In the midst of these verbal and terrorist attacks on Israel, Judge Richard Goldstone essentially issued a mea culpa for his UN report on the Gaza War, withdrawing its key charge that Israel intentionally targeted civilians as a policy. “If I had known then what I know now,” he wrote in The Washington Post, “the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.”
Goldstone’s about-face has given Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu leverage in confronting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. With a new, large-scale, Gaza-bound flotilla set to sail in May, Netanyahu has requested that the secretary general intercede before Israel needs to make another stand to divert the Gaza-bound ships.
Finally, Israel knows that the United States is totally overwhelmed by events that are changing and escalating daily. Last week it was Libya, and then Syria, and now Yemen. The Obama administration desperately needs to demonstrate its ability to lead.
With Israel headed for a confrontation in the fall at the UN over the expected Palestinian demand for recognition as an independent state, Israel has an opportunity — at minimal risk — to provide itself and its allies in Washington with some positive, stabilizing news in the region. If the Netanyahu government, which faces political challenges only from its extreme Right, could make a serious gambit to shift the peace process with the Palestinians into gear, there is no telling what goodwill it might be able to achieve with little cost and tremendous potential upside.
Assuming the prime minister might be planning to attend the AIPAC meeting in May, he could use that opportunity to deliver a constructive new initiative to both the president and his American- Jewish supporters at the annual policy conference.
This will not be easy and might present serious internal political challenges for the Netanyahu government. In truth his right-wing allies have no place else to go politically and the so-called opposition could not oppose him. Such a move requires political courage, but in this instance there is no serious suggestion that a move to re-energize a serious dialogue with the Palestinians can hurt him or the country. This is especially true given that many Palestinians themselves are actually making their own demands for progress.
An Israeli peace initiative at this time could well be disarming to many of Netanyahu’s skeptics in the world community. It could also negate much of the persistent hostile sentiment Israel gets in the region. It would present President Obama with a gift from a friend, and could well undermine many of Israel’s critics. Such a move will help not a whit any of the deep-seated problems that are exploding throughout the Arab world, but it will at least remove Israel from the center of the conversation.