Ironically, while the United States offers carrots to the hostile regime in Iran to encourage it to change its policy on nuclear enrichment, the administration seems bent on using sticks on its ally Israel to force a change in its settlement policy. The approach is counterproductive and should be changed to one focusing on offering incentives for Israel to freeze settlements and evacuate Jews living outside the blocs of consensus settlements. Here are a few possible incentives to explore:
1) Set a deadline for eliminating Iran’s nuclear facilities. If the United States takes out Iran’s nuclear capability, then Israel has no more existential threat to worry about and does not have to take risks to do the job itself. Israel would be thrilled, but there’s little evidence President Obama has any intention of taking the necessary measures to stop the Iranian program and few American officials are willing to risk the consequences of a military operation. This would, nevertheless, be the most powerful incentive to change Israeli policy.
2) Sign a formal defense treaty with Israel. Though the United States has said it will defend Israel, a formal treaty would significantly reduce the threat of an Iranian strike and would also enhance its deterrent against groups such as Hezbollah. Many Israelis fear the constraints such a treaty may place on their freedom of action, but why not give them the choice?
3) Admit Israel to NATO. Israel’s army could contribute to the alliance and the alliance could all but eliminate the Iranian threat because it would force the Iranians to abandon the idea they can win a nuclear war with Israel. NATO forces would also be more reliable than U.N. peacekeepers to patrol borders, which would make it easier for Israel to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians as well as the Syrians and Lebanese. As with a U.S. treaty, Israel would have some trepidation about the restrictions NATO might seek to impose, especially with regard to nuclear weapons. The United States also could not make this deal alone.
4) Offer a generous compensation package to relocate settlers inside Israel. It is anathema to many U.S. officials to pay Israel to reverse a policy that America has long opposed, but any peace agreement will inevitably involve a significant financial role for the United States, so why not make a down payment on peace now? The most ideological settlers will still resist, but most settlers moved to the territories for economic reasons and will be receptive to financial incentives to relocate.
5) Pressure the Arabs to buy the land from the settlers. Jews bought land from Arabs to build their state; the Arabs should adopt the same tactic. This would be a good test for the Saudis, in particular, who feign concern for the Palestinians. Let them offer settlers money for their land. The Arabs will claim it’s already their land, but saying it won’t make it so.
6) Provide Israel with a large number of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. These planes could help Israel achieve a significant upgrade to its air capability. As it is, Israel is expected to get some planes but cannot afford the large numbers it would like. There would be little downside to making the offer, though it may not be a significant enough benefit to offset the political risk of abandoning the settlements.
7) Finance the Red-Dead water project, which involves building a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. This project will significantly increase the water supply in the area and thereby address one of the most critical issues affecting the economies of Jordan, the future Palestinian state, and Israel. An even better solution would be for Obama to find partners to help pay for the project.
Benjamin Netanyahu may offer the best chance for progress in the peace process because his national security policies give him greater credibility in Israel to make risky decisions. Beating him with a stick, however, is likely to bring down his government. This would only put negotiations off by months or years, and his successor may be no more malleable to Obama’s will.
If the president wants to stop settlement growth and move toward a peace agreement, it would be wise to drop the stick and offer Israel carrots.