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Obama to Israel: "If not now, when?"

Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By David Harris-Gershon (@David_EHG)

In a far-reaching interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on Sunday, President Obama made clear, perhaps for the first time in his presidency, that his administration will primarily fault Israel if the current U.S.-brokered peace negotiations fail, as expected.

Listen to Obama speak about Israel's approach to peace-making and the conflict - to words which are more direct and pointed than anything to come out of an American president's mouth in some time:

I have not yet heard ... a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.

The only thing that I've heard is, "We'll just keep on doing what we're doing, and deal with problems as they arise. And we'll build settlements where we can. And where there are problems in the West Bank, we will deal with them forcefully. We'll cooperate or co-opt the Palestinian Authority." And yet, at no point do you ever see an actual resolution to the problem.

It's maintenance of a chronic situation. And my assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers, I think, is there comes a point where you can't manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel's traditions?

Perhaps even more striking are Obama's blunt words with regard to his view of Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his administration's record settlement expansions:

When I have a conversation with Bibi, that's the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?


[For if we see] no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction - and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we've seen in a very long time - if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.

The condemnation of the international community can translate into a lack of cooperation when it comes to key security interests. It means reduced influence for us, the United States, in issues that are of interest to Israel. It's survivable, but it is not preferable.

These words are more than just warning shots, they are a prediction. If the Kerry-led peace talks fail, Obama is reiterating what Kerry has already said: that the international movement to boycott and isolate Israel will simply intensify.

When Kerry said it, a few Israeli politicians lined up to accuse Kerry of being a mouthpiece for anti-Semites, and even Netanyahu critiqued Kerry for legitimizing Palestinian nonviolence by mentioning its existence.

And how did Netanyahu react to Obama's words? In his AIPAC speech, Netanyahu strangely echoed leftist talking points, expressing the fruits that peace could bring to Israel.

Whether Obama's strong stance will move Netanyahu to seriously pursue peace with President Abbas, who Obama described as someone "committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts," remains to be seen.

However, what is clear is this: the pressure for Israel to end the settlement enterprise and seek peace is mounting. And the U.S. will neither have the power nor the desire to stop it should peace talks fail.

David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, now out from Oneworld Publications. Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

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