Rarely has Israel looked lonelier. On November 29th only the United States, Canada and the Czech Republic among serious countries backed its arguments at the United Nations’ General Assembly against giving the Palestinians an enhanced status at the UN. Now Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has declared its determination to build thousands of new Jewish houses on the West Bank, where the Palestinians hope to turn their virtual state into a real one. It also says it will withhold tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which runs parts of the West Bank under Israeli eyes, to punish the Palestinians for their cheek at the UN.
It is not hard to see why. The decision to withhold the taxes is probably just a temporary punishment. But it will hardly help the more moderate Palestinians of Fatah, which runs the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas, in favour of Hamas, its Gaza-based rival, which is still loath to accept Israel’s existence. The new settlements are far more serious. The houses Israel keeps on erecting on Palestinian territory are the main reason why so much of the world has lost sympathy for Israel’s cause. The Palestinians have had to watch the Israelis gobbling up the land on which their state is meant to be based. Worse, the latest planned settlement, in a zone known as E-1, threatens to box Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, which they hope to make their capital, into a sealed-off enclave, impeding connections to the rest of the fledgling state of Palestine and bisecting the northern and southern halves. Travel from Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, to Ramallah, the Palestinians’ administrative headquarters, would be a nightmare.
Mr Netanyahu may try to justify his defiance over the settlements by pointing to the Palestinians’ unilateralism at the UN and the rockets from Gaza, though Israel has more than replied to them. He may also have an eye on the coming Israeli election. But for those, including this newspaper, who still hope for a two-state solution, the new houses are an impassable obstacle. Palestinian leaders cite them as further evidence that Israel has no interest in ceding territory, even for peace. True to that picture, although Mr Netanyahu endorsed a two-state solution in 2009, his Likud party hasn’t: some of its candidates still want a Greater Israel extending to the Jordan river.
For Mr Obama, stuck in budget negotiations in Washington, this could not come at a worse time. But he should speak out loudly. Mr Obama’s envoys, just like the Europeans, have always stressed that building settlements in the E-1 corridor is unacceptable. Israel still gets billions of dollars from America, and might well rely on its help to attack Iran next year. Yet Mr Netanyahu would not have announced the settlements unless he thought he could get away with it. Israel has enough friends in Congress to protect his back. And thumbing his nose at Mr Obama has cost him nothing with Israeli voters.
SPEAK NOW, MR OBAMA, LOUDLY
A braver Mr Obama would this time tell Israel some home truths. Yes, many changes are necessary on the Palestinian side: Hamas needs to recognise Israel’s existence, for instance, and settle its differences with Fatah. But carving up a prospective Palestine and building a Greater Israel is destroying the prospects for peace. That is not just because it enrages the dispossessed Palestinians and their newly democratic Arab neighbours. It is also because of demographic trends within Israel. The Arab population is growing faster than the Jewish one. Under a single-state solution, Jews would become a minority. Unless they are prepared for Arabs to dominate the country politically, they will have to deprive them of the vote. The road Mr Netanyahu is pushing his country down is an ugly one - and Israel’s true friends should tell it so.