One thing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should bring to his meeting in New York on Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In the year and a half that Netanyahu has been in power, he has professed a keen desire to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, but his vision for that peace remains a mystery.
In domestic Israeli politics, Netanyahu's creative ambiguity regarding the Palestinians makes sense. He doesn't want to roil either his party faithful or key members of his coalition unnecessarily. As soon as he begins to hint at concessions he is prepared to make, his lock on Israel's right wing will weaken and opponents will begin to mobilize. This explains Netanyahu's refusal to heed President Obama's call from the U.N. rostrum for Israel to renew the settlement moratorium when it expired in late September. Without a sense of an imminent breakthrough with the Palestinians, the Israeli leader is unwilling to risk his constituents' support.
Yet Israelis are concerned about two developments that are unlikely to go away. First is the increased delegitimization of Israel internationally and the pursuit of international legal actions against the country and its leaders. Last week, Israeli officials canceled an official visit to Britain, fearing possible legal pursuit for their conduct during Israel's 2009 military campaign in the Gaza Strip. Other senior Israeli officials have recently canceled visits to other Western European countries for the same reason. However unjust and unwise Israelis see this approbation from abroad, it is a growing political reality that Israeli leaders must confront.
A second reason for Israeli concern is the growing chorus calling for Palestinian statehood to be established, not through negotiations but through a U.N. Security Council resolution recognizing Palestine as a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel's current control of the area could thwart Palestinian sovereignty in those areas. Nonetheless, a Security Council resolution would further isolate Israel diplomatically and seriously harm its negotiating position.
The best way for Netanyahu to overcome growing international skepticism about his intentions is to get in front of it. Recent Israeli leaders have recognized that when it comes to their country's international standing, not playing offense means having to play defense. Hence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 after negotiations with the Palestinians fell apart, convinced that the international community would otherwise present a plan he did not like. Similarly, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came forward with several plans before and after Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon in an attempt to keep that military action from isolating Israel internationally.
Sitting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu feels that the international community and the Obama administration don't trust him and haven't provided him an opportunity to prove his seriousness at the negotiating table. To get to the table, he feels he is being asked to pay a politically unacceptable price — renewing a settlement moratorium he promised Israelis would be a temporary, one-time event. He sees such a step as the beginning of the end of his political coalition, and he doesn't believe that it is the last of the concessions America and others will demand from Israel to keep negotiations alive. Why should he pay a price to get to the table when the Palestinians do not, he asks? But that kind of reasoning will not help him or Israel out of the corner in which it now finds itself.
To prove his international critics wrong while keeping his governing base alive, Netanyahu should present the Obama administration with a workable vision for peace with the Palestinians. If he is unwilling to renew the settlement moratorium, he should take other bold steps that would improve West Bank life without harming Israeli security interests. He could, for example, allow the Palestinian Authority to expand its economic and security reach into the 60% of the West Bank that Israel controls exclusively. Such steps would not be a concession but rather a signal that peace and a Palestinian state are Israel's objective.
By outlining a plan for peace, or at the very least a viable way back to negotiations, Netanyahu has an opportunity to set the path forward. Should he choose not to, he can be sure that others will seek to fill that space, and most likely in a way that neither he nor the Israeli people will like.
Robert M. Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has served in senior positions at the State Department and the White House under five administrations.