The outgoing Jewish year 5776 was, on the face of it, a good one for Israeli diplomacy. Israel deepened its ties with Asian giants China, India and Japan; reached close operational understandings with the Russians in Syria; enhanced covert cooperation with moderate Arab Sunni states; added substance to relations with a bevy of African countries; concluded potentially far-reaching defense and energy agreements with Greece and Cyprus; achieved reconciliation with Turkey after a six year rift; and secured a $38 billion military aid package from the United States for the 10-year period 2018-2027.
But there are strong countervailing currents. And as the occupation of the West Bank enters its 50th year, consolidation of these not inconsiderable diplomatic successes will almost certainly depend on substantive movement on the Palestinian track.
The year began with diplomatic fallout from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's highly personal and very public dispute with US President Barack Obama over the American-led nuclear agreement with Iran. Months after the formal signing, Netanyahu was still calling it "a very bad deal" and he rejected Obama's offer to start negotiating a generous compensatory military aid package. "We can't be bought," he hissed.
After a delay of almost a year, the US and Israel reached agreement on the proffered aid package with Netanyahu's domestic critics insisting that the $38 billion ceiling was around $7 billion less than was on offer to start with.
50 years of occupation: IDF soldiers patrol in the West Bank city of Hebron; Credit: Nathan Alpert / GPO.
More importantly, immediately after the relevant memorandum of understanding was signed, American leaders indicated that having guaranteed Israel's security they now felt free to pressure it to move on the Palestinian track towards a two-state solution. At the UN in mid-September, Obama himself declared that Israel must "recognize that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land," and, raising his voice in a meeting of top global diplomats, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on the international community to take action to stop Israel and the Palestinians sliding towards a single binational state and war. We should "act or shut up," he insisted.
Netanyahu, however, hopes to be able to use the recent diplomatic successes to withstand any American or international pressure and maintain the status quo with the Palestinians indefinitely.
He believes Israel can build on its booming economic ties with the Asian giants without them making diplomatic demands; that the ties with the African countries, which also face an acute Islamist threat, are based on highly significant Israeli economic and security aid and know-how, and could even lead to bloc changes in Israel's favor in African voting patterns at the UN; that the relatively warm relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia could in some cases help deflect international pressure; that given its newfound cooperation with the moderate Sunni states against common Iranian and Islamist enemies, Israel could reach tacit and even overt regional agreements without necessarily moving on the Palestinian track; and that the reconciliation with Turkey, achieved without Israel lifting its naval blockade on Gaza, proves that major diplomatic advances can be had without having to compromise on the Palestinian track.
But all this is pie in the sky. Without movement on the Palestinian track, Israel's regional and international standings will be compromised. There is no way the moderate Sunni states will move forward without a Palestinian component. And as the occupation enters its 50th year, international pressure on Israel to end it is welling up. The key will be the extent to which America continues to provide Israel with a protective diplomatic umbrella.
"Without movement on the Palestinian track, Israel's regional and international standings will be compromised"
The signs are that, as the Obama administration winds up its final term, it intends to lift the umbrella at least enough to facilitate internationally accepted terms of reference for Israeli-Palestinian reengagement on the two-state solution. This could take the form of a UN Resolution which the US does not veto or the outlining by Obama of new presidential parameters. How far this goes will depend on the identity of the next American president.
Either way, if 5776 was a year of significant diplomatic gains, 5777 is likely to see them tested under mounting international pressure on Israel's right-wing government.
Netanyahu will also face strong domestic pressure, with the center left accusing him of missing an historic opportunity to secure Israel's international and regional position through his refusal to move on the Palestinian track.
To deflect the pressure, Netanyahu may seek engagement of some sort with the Palestinians. He may also again try to bring Isaac Herzog's pro-peace Zionist Union into his coalition. But with an eye to the coming diplomatic storm, the center left is gearing up for a serious challenge. Already polls show former finance minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid overtaking Netanyahu's Likud, with a clutch of ex-generals ready to join the fray against Netanyahu, whom they accuse of leading Israel and the Zionist enterprise to disaster.
The time is fast approaching for Israelis to make the strategic choice between continued occupation and the concomitant international opprobrium, or genuine action towards a two-state solution and a secure and respected place in the global order.
5777 could be the year.
Dr. Leslie Susser has covered Middle East peacemaking from the Begin-Sadat breakthrough in the late 1970s to the present day.