Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is stuck between a diplomatic rock and a political hard place. And his chosen means of extricating himself from the double bind is only making things worse for him and for Israel.
Diplomatically, Netanyahu is beset by the Palestinian political war to delegitimize Israel and the Obama administration’s escalating hostility. That hostility was most recently expressed during President Barack Obama’s meeting with American Jewish leaders on March 1.
Insinuating that Israel is to blame for the absence of peace in the Middle East, Obama scolded Jewish leaders telling them to “search your souls,” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace.
Obama’s newest threat is that through the so-called Middle East Quartet, (Russia, the UN, the EU and the US), the administration will move towards supporting the Palestinian plan to declare Palestinian statehood. That state would include all of Judea and Samaria, Gaza and eastern, southern and northern Jerusalem. Since it would not be established in the framework of a peace treaty with Israel, and since its leaders reject Israel’s right to exist, “Palestine” would be born in a de facto state of war with Israel.
To credit this threat, Obama has empowered the Quartet to supplant the US as the mediator between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Buoyed by Obama, Quartet representatives and American and European officials have beaten a steady path to Netanyahu’s door over the past several weeks. Their message is always the same: If Israel does not prove that it is serious about peace by giving massive unreciprocated concessions to the Palestinians then they will abandon all remaining pretense of support for Israel and throw their lot in completely with the Palestinians.
For the past year and a half Netanyahu’s policy for dealing with Obama’s animosity has been to try to appease him by making incremental concessions. Netanyahu’s rationale for acting in this manner is twofold. First, he has tried to convince Obama that he really does want peace with the Palestinians. Second, when each of his concessions are met with further Palestinian intransigence, Netanyahu has argued that the disparity between Israeli concessions and Palestinian rejectionism and extremism demonstrates that it is Israel, not the Palestinians that should be supported by the West.
To date Netanyahu’s concessions have included his acceptance of Palestinian statehood and the two-state paradigm for peace; his temporary prohibition on Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria; his undeclared prohibition on Jewish building in Jerusalem; his undeclared open-ended prohibition of Jewish building in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem after his temporary building ban expired; his agreement to drastically curtail IDF counterterror operations in Judea and Samaria; his move to enact an undeclared abatement of law enforcement against illegal Arab construction in Jerusalem; and his decision to enable the deployment of the US-trained Palestinian army in Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu’s declaration of support for Palestinian statehood required his acceptance of the Palestinian narrative. That narrative blames the absence of peace on Israel’s refusal to surrender all of Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. Having effectively accepted the blame for the absence of peace, Netanyahu has been unable to wage a coherent political counteroffensive against the Palestinian political war.
NOW IN a bid to head off Obama’s newest threat to use the Quartet to back the Palestinians’ political war against Israel, Netanyahu is considering yet another set of unreciprocated concessions to the Palestinians.
For the past week and a half, Netanyahu has been considering a new “diplomatic initiative.” According to media reports, he is weighing two options. First, he may end IDF counterterror operations in Palestinian cities in Judea and Samaria. Such a move would involve compromising all of the IDF’s military achievements in the areas since 2002 when it first targeted the Palestinian terror factories from Hebron to Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield.
The second option he is reportedly considering involves announcing his acceptance of a Palestinian state with non-final borders. Such a move would render it difficult if not impossible for Israel to conduct counterterror operations within those temporary borders. It would also make it all but impossible for Israel to assert its sovereign rights over the areas.
Supporters of this initiative argue that not only will it stave off US pressure; it will strengthen Netanyahu’s political position at home. Recent polls show that Netanyahu’s approval numbers are falling while those of his two main rivals – Opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Leiberman are rising.
Netanyahu reportedly believes that by moving to the Left, he will be able to take support away from Livni and so regain his position as the most popular leader in the country. Given this assessment, Netanyahu’s supporters argue that making further concessions to the Palestinians is a win-win prospect. It will strengthen Israel diplomatically and it will strengthen him politically.
Sadly for both Israel and Netanyahu, this analysis is completely wrong.
Since Obama came into office, he has consistently demonstrated that no Israeli concession will convince him to support Israel against the Palestinians. So too, the fact that every Israeli concession has been met by Palestinian intransigence has had no impact on either Obama or his European counterparts. Netanyahu’s correct claims that the Palestinians’ intransigence shows they are not interested in peace is of interest to no one.
And it is this lack of interest in Palestinian intransigence rather than Palestinian intransigence itself that is remarkable. What it shows is that Obama and his European counterparts don’t care about achieving peace. Like the Palestinians, all they want is more Israeli concessions.
Since taking office, Obama has only supported Israel against the Palestinians twice. The first time was last December. After months of deliberate ambiguity, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the administration opposes the Palestinian plan to unilaterally declare independence. Then last month the administration grudgingly vetoed the Palestinian-Lebanese draft resolution condemning Israeli construction in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.
In both cases, the administration’s actions were not the result of Israeli appeasement, but of massive Congressional pressure. Congress issued bipartisan calls demanding that the administration torpedo both of these anti-Israel initiatives.
What this shows is that Netanyahu’s strategy for contending with Obama is fundamentally misconstrued and misdirected. Obama will not be moved by Israeli concessions. The only way to stop Obama from moving forward on his anti-Israel policy course is to work through Congress.
And the most effective way to work through Congress is for Netanyahu to abandon his current course and tell the truth about the nature of the Palestinians, their rejection of Israel, their anti-Americanism and their support for jihadist terror.
At the same time, Netanyahu must speak unambiguously about Israel’s national rights to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, our required security borders, and about why US national security requires a strong Israel.
The stronger the case Netanyahu makes for Israel, the more support Israel will receive from the Congress. And the more support Israel receives from the Congress, the more Obama will be compelled to temper his anti-Israel agenda.
AS FOR domestic politics, Netanyahu’s attempt to appease Obama is a major cause of his falling approval numbers among voters. Likud voters do not expect him to outflank Livni from the Left. They voted for Likud and not Kadima because they recognized that Kadima’s leftist policies are dangerous and doomed to failure.
Kadima’s recent increase in domestic support owes more to the breakup of the Labor Party than to Netanyahu’s failure to carry out Kadima’s policies of territorial surrender and diplomatic kowtowing to the UN, EU and Obama. The main beneficiary of Likud’s eroding support has been Leiberman.
While Netanyahu has maintained his allegiance to the false, failed, unpopular-outside-of-the-media “peace with the Palestinians” paradigm in the foolish hope of winning over Obama, Leiberman has seized control of the Right’s political agenda. While Netanyahu accepts the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership which rejects Israel’s right to exist, Leiberman presents himself as the leader of the majority of Israelis who oppose the Left’s agenda of land for war.
Moreover, while Netanyahu shunts aside his own party’s most popular politicians like Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon in favor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he demoralizes his party faithful and his voters.
And not only does Barak hurt Netanyahu with voters, this week he took an ax to Israel’s most important diplomatic asset – Congressional support.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Barak said that Israel may ask Congress to increase US military support for Israel by $20 billion. Given the US’s economic woes, and Congress’s commitment to massive budget cuts, at best Barak’s statement represented a complete incomprehension about the basic facts of US domestic politics. At worst, it was a supremely unfriendly act towards Israel’s friends in Congress who are trying to maintain the current level of US military aid to Israel in the face of a popular push to slash the US’s foreign aid budget.
Beyond that, the plain fact is that Barak’s statement was wrong. Israel’s steady economic growth and its recently discovered natural gas fields should make it possible for Israel to decrease the military aid it receives from the US. This is true even though the revolutions in Egypt and throughout the Arab world will require Israel to massively increase its defense budget.
If Netanyahu is serious about surmounting his diplomatic and political challenges, his best bet is to abandon his present course altogether. The most effective way to defend Israel against Obama is to boldly assert, defend and implement a unilateral Israeli plan.
NETANYAHU HIMSELF gave the broad outlines for such a plan this week when he stated that to defend itself, Israel will need to maintain perpetual control over the Jordan Valley. If Netanyahu were to announce a plan to apply Israeli law to the Jordan Valley and the major blocs of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, he would accomplish several things at once. He would advance Israel’s national interests rather than the Palestinians’ interests against Israel. He would force the US and Europe to discuss issues that are grounded in strategic rationality rather than leftist-Islamist ideology. Finally, he would take back the leadership of his own political camp from Leiberman and augment his political power domestically.
So too, if Netanyahu fired Barak and replaced him with Ya’alon, he would energize his political supporters in a way he has failed to do since taking office.
Netanyahu is reportedly considering unveiling his new diplomatic initiative in a speech before Congress in May. If he were to use that venue to unveil this plan and also announce a plan to wean Israel off of US military aid within three years, not only would he blunt Obama’s power to threaten Israel. He would secure popular US support for Israel for years to come.
And if he did that, he would restore the Israeli voters’ support for his leadership and stabilize his government through the next elections.
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