Bibi’s Epic Fail

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the United States has ended in an unprecedented failure. On the Palestinian front, the Iranian front and the domestic US front, Netanyahu’s efforts last week ran badly aground. Let’s review the categories.


Netanyahu himself illustrated his greatest failure: his attempt to divert the conversation about Iran by making a big show of intercepting a ship carrying rockets, ostensibly, according to Israel, headed for the Gaza Strip. Bemoaning the lack of global outrage that he had hoped would sabotage the talks between Iran and world powers on the nuclear issue, Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet upon his return that: “”The goal of seizing the arms ship was to expose Iran’s true face. I say this in order to bring it to the attention of Ms. Ashton, who is now visiting Tehran, and I wish to ask her whether she asked her hosts about the shipment of weapons to terrorist organizations.”

In fact, there are very serious questions about the incident that are not being raised. It may be best that they’re not, because it is a reflection of the minor impact the incident has thus far had on the talks with Iran. The timing of the Israeli intercept was obviously staged to coincide with Netanyahu’s visit to the US to speak at the annual AIPAC conference and to meet with US President Barack Obama. As Amir Rappaport points out, the operation was being planned for months and was carried out far outside of Israeli waters, so the timing was no accident.

The plan fails in its very conception, though. At no point did Iran agree to stop its support for Hezbollah and Hamas in order to pursue these talks, nor did anyone expect them to. But other questions can be raised here as well. Was this, as Netanyahu alleges, Iran showing its “true face” as it masquerades behind the apparent moderation of Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif or was it, as many observers suspect, an attempt by Iranian hardliners to undermine the efforts of the moderates? Indeed, there is some question as to whether the weapons were even intended for Gaza.

It is also odd that weapons from Syria are brought to Iran to be smuggled all the way back to Gaza; the point of the Iran-Syria connection is for such flows to run in the opposite direction, although this could, perhaps, be explained by the ongoing civil war in Syria. In part, that explanation is connected to increased Israeli surveillance of Syrian munitions. That, however, raises the question of why Iran, knowing how closely Israel is watching Syria, would engage in such an operation now.

There are many questions about this incident, not the least of which is the veracity of Israel’s version of events, absent any proof they have made public about the weapons’ destination; they could have been heading for Hamas, to Islamic Jihad (as Israel claims) in Gaza, to anti-government militias in Egypt, to groups in Sudan… There is a lot here that is unclear at best in the Israeli version of events, although certainly nothing to prove that any part of it is untrue.

But what is clear is that the response from the United States and Europe is considerably less than Netanyahu had hoped for. No one believes this shows Iran’s “true face” because no one ever believed that engagement on the nuclear issue by itself was going to change Iran’s position and policy vis–à–vis Israel. What can do that, as Zarif has strongly indicated, is an agreement that the Palestinians clearly accept. So, where are we with that?

Palestinians and the Kerry peace plan

Netanyahu didn’t have much to say about peace with the Palestinians, but what little he did say was a clear attempt to negate any possibility of success on the part of US Secretary of State John Kerry. His very first remark to the fawning crowd at the AIPAC conference was a greeting “from Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people.” Not surprisingly, this did not sit well outside the hall of sycophants at AIPAC. His only other substantive statement was a call on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” something neither Jews nor Israelis can even agree to a definition of and that everyone knows is a non-starter for Abbas.

This demand is a threadbare attempt to get the Palestinians to acknowledge, before an agreement, that they have no claim to a return of refugees (fair for Israel to try to win in talks if they want, but unreasonable to demand as a precondition, as Israel generally has), that Palestinian citizens of Israel must be content with second-class status and most of all, that the Zionist historical narrative is more legitimate than the Palestinian one. No leader of any people would ever agree to such a thing, and Netanyahu is well aware of this.

But outside of the lock-step supporters of Israel in AIPAC and their fellow travelers to the right of that organization, no one is buying into this demand even though its crucial for Netanyahu. For months now, it has been getting clearer and clearer that Kerry’s efforts were likely to fail and much of what both Netanyahu and Abbas have been doing and saying has been geared toward escaping blame, especially US blame, for this likely failure. Bibi needs the demand for recognition of a “Jewish state” to be seen as reasonable, but he’s not winning the battle.

“The level of mistrust is as large as any level of mistrust I’ve ever seen, on both sides,” Kerry told a House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday. With Netanyahu now back in Israel and Abbas slated to come to Washington next week, this is a clear statement of pessimism from the one man who, whatever the reality of the talks, has insisted on maintaining a show of optimism. The prospect of failure is becoming more certain, but thus far, Netanyahu has failed to gain the upper hand in escaping blame, as Ehud Barak did with Bill Clinton in 2000.

The US domestic audience

On the US front, the situation is unprecedented. The good wishes most US citizens hold for Israel remain steady, indicating the same widespread support for Israel’s security that has always existed. But the war-weary United States is withdrawing into itself and the diminishing support for Israeli policies is a reflection of this. However, that’s far from the only cause of the new situation Israel finds itself in.

Relationships between Israeli leaders and US presidents have varied. Barack Obama is not the first to have a rocky relationship with an Israeli Prime Minister. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush did not always get on well with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, respectively. On the other hand, Bill Clinton was practically a groupie for Yitzhak Rabin and had a very warm relationship with his political successor, Ehud Barak. Similarly, George W. Bush called Ariel Sharon a mentor, and continued to get along famously with Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. Yet through all these relationships, bad and good, Israel always maintained warm ties with both major US parties. AIPAC prided itself for decades on its bi-partisan reach.

Netanyahu has severely damaged that bipartisanship. From his deep ideological connection to US neoconservatives, to his barely hidden meddling in US electoral politics, he has alienated Democrats. Those Democrats remain dedicated to Israel’s security, or, in some cases, to AIPAC-directed campaign contributions. But with his repeated attempts to draw the United States into deepening conflict and possibly war with Iran, Netanyahu has forced Democrats to choose between their constituents and AIPAC. That’s a battle AIPAC would never win, but Netanyahu seemed to believe that AIPAC could do anything. For all those who accused John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of demonizing “Jewish power” in their book on the Israel lobby, it seems it was Netanyahu who imagined an omnipotent lobby for his country in the US and wildly overestimated their power.

While Bibi spoke to AIPAC and other US audiences, article after article — in the Huffington PostForeign Policy, the Washington Examiner, Israel’s YNet, and other sites — proclaimed AIPAC’s diminishing influence. It really isn’t surprising. Bibi has tried to increase US involvement in the Middle East at a time when most in the US, despite being willing to continue to fund Israel and help it out at the United Nations, want to reduce our involvement in the region. And, while Bibi can talk the talk of the US right-wing, most Jews in the United States are liberals. With voices who support the rights of Palestinians as equal to Israelis gaining prominence, US Jews are looking for ways to reconcile their liberalism with their support of Israel in a way they have not had to in the past. Bibi is trying to push them back to the old narratives, and they aren’t working.

What if Netanyahu fails?

That’s a reasonable question. Right now, there is no serious challenger to Netanyahu on the horizon, but that can change if his bungling of the US relationship becomes more of a problem for the average Israeli. The challenge could come from the right, as Avigdor Lieberman is trying to position himself to make a run at the Prime Minister’s office. But if failure with the Palestinians and with the US is at issue, Lieberman wouldn’t be the answer, and no one more moderate than Bibi is currently poised to make any kind of challenge.

Still, it is now much more likely that the peace talks are going to collapse at the end of April. Netanyahu won’t be directly blamed by the Obama administration, but if they do think it is his fault they can easily communicate that in Israel and Europe, with profound consequences for Netanyahu. Meanwhile, more and more of Europe is turning against Israel’s increasingly right-wing and rejectionist policies. That could cost Bibi dearly.

Failure might not only harm AIPAC, but it could seriously harm more moderate groups in the US like J Street. If the two-state solution appears unrealistic, J Street will have little to hang their hats on. And without the moderate alternative, US support, apart from the annual military aid, is likely to diminish as well. Unfortunately, without a Palestinian strategy to take advantage of this changing state of affairs (beginning with unifying their body politic), it’s not going to lead to better days. And such does not seem to be forthcoming.

Bibi’s gone back home now. But his trip here was notable for how much was at stake and how badly he did with it.

In Congress, The Fight For The Future of US Foreign Policy

This article originally appeared at LobeLog. For further illustration of this issue, see my article from November 15 at Souciant.  Kerry and Bibi

There’s a showdown coming, and the outcome may determine how the US runs its foreign policy in the Middle East, at least for the next three years and perhaps much longer.

The issues at hand are both immediate and long-term, and both involve an awful lot of “daylight” between the positions of the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel. The very top of the Israeli government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and far-right “kingmaker,” Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Naftali Bennett, has launched a full-scale attack on the policies of Barack Obama. They have dispensed with the fiction that Israel is not a domestic US issue and have brought into the light of day the enormous influence they have in Congress. Continue reading

Israelis, Saudis Just Getting Started in Opposing U.S.-Iran Detente

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.

Bibi and Kerry

Bibi and Kerry

The trick to finding an agreement between the P5+1 world powers and Iran has become clear: keep Israel and Saudi Arabia out of the room. (But don’t expect them to be happy about it.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is touring the globe now with his message of doom about an impending Iranian nuclear weapon. “It will be tragic if (Iran) succeeds in avoiding the sanctions,” Netanyahu said in Rome on Tuesday.

That statement comes on the heels of his Meet the Press appearance where he said: “I think the pressure has to be maintained on Iran, even increased on Iran, until it actually stops the nuclear program, that is, dismantles it.” Continue reading

Iranian Elections: Netanyahu, Neoconservatives Are the Big Losers

This post originally appeared at LobeLog.

Outside of Iran, there is no doubt that the biggest losers in Iran’s election this past weekend were the Likud government in Israel and its supporters, especially neoconservatives, in the United States.

The response of Israel’s Prime Minister to the election of centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next President was almost comical in its sharp reversal from the rhetoric of the past eight years. As was widely reported, Benjamin Netanyahu said that it was Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president who sets nuclear policy.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president

That is, of course, true, and it is precisely what opponents of an attack on Iran have been saying for the past eight years. Netanyahu and his neocon allies, on the other hand, were repeatedly pointing to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the fearsome specter, the man who wanted to “wipe Israel off the map” and must be prevented from acquiring the means to do so. With Ahmadinejad gone, and, much to the surprise of many observers, not replaced by someone from the arch-conservative (or, in Iranian political terms, principlist) camp, the hawks have lost their best tool for frightening people and getting them behind the idea of attacking Iran.

So, Netanyahu has stepped up his push for a hard line on Iran, saying, “The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program.” Netanyahu is admitting that all the rhetoric around Ahemdinejad was insincere, and that the Iranian president is only relevant insofar as his visage can be used to whip people into a frenzy behind his call for war. Continue reading

Kerry’s Latest Mideast Trip Doomed Before It Starts

It may seem like US Secretary of State John Kerry is chasing his own tail with regard to the Israel-Palestine issue. But he is, intentionally or otherwise, raising some important questions. One is what the official Israeli position really is on the two-state solution. Perhaps the most important one is how foolish, inept and impotent will the United States allow Israel to make it appear? And of greatest concern to Americans, why is this President even less willing to confront Israel, at so dire a time, than any of his predecessors?

At some point during President Barack Obama’s and Kerry’s last trip to Israel earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to put a hold on issuing any new tenders for more settlement construction. To most, this means a settlement freeze, but it’s nothing of that kind.

Building continues at a fast pace, due to a very large number (some 1,500 residential units) of tenders approved between the Israeli elections and Obama’s visit. This was, of course, intentional, as Netanyahu knew he would probably need to make some kind of gesture to Obama. And another huge round of approvals is just waiting, held up in channels, and will probably be approved sometime in the next couple of months. In terms of construction work, there is likely to be almost no noticeable break.

But even this was not enough for Netanyahu. For much of the past months, the temporary hold on new tenders was only rumor. But a few days after Israel’s Army Radio announced it and the settlement watchdog group, Peace Now, confirmed it, Israel announced the approval of tenders for 296 units in the settlement of Beit El. Shortly after that, the Israeli government announced that it would declare four “settlement outposts” newly legal. The outposts are wildcat settlements set up without governmental approval (all settlements on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war are illegal under international law). Sometimes Israel destroys them, sometimes it ignores them; in recent years, it has taken to legalizing some of them retroactively.

That Israel took these steps mere days before Kerry’s return to the region cannot be ignored. It was yet another direct slap in the face by Israel to its benefactor and the one country that stands behind it no matter how egregious Israeli behavior may be. This time, even Kerry took note.

He took the unusual step of summoning the Israeli ambassador for an explanation, and, from reports, at least some degree of dressing down. Which is all well and good, but Israel has no reason to worry about it. Apart from a perhaps unpleasant conversation for its Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, Israel will face no consequences for once again embarrassing the United States.

How do we know this? Well, despite these Israeli actions, the United States pushed the European Union into delaying a vote on labelling imports from Israeli settlements, distinguishing them from products made in Israel proper. Of course, the US is willing to do this in part because it feeds the illusion that there’s a peace process for Kerry to work on, one which would be hindered by an EU move of this sort.

The middle of June has been set as an arbitrary deadline for Kerry’s efforts. Not coincidentally, Iran’s presidential election is scheduled for June 14. At that point, we can expect the Palestinian issue, already pushed aside by first, the Iran war talk, and more recently by the escalating Israeli involvement in Syria, to be completely shunted. Mid-June is also the point at which the EU is now scheduled to vote on labelling settlement products.

This would seem to be a process of going through the motions for the Obama Administration. Obama himself subtly indicated to the Israeli public in his speech there that he was not going to stop them from committing national suicide if that was their chosen course. Meanwhile, he seems only too eager to please AIPAC and the rest of their lobbying cohorts. Meanwhile, his Secretary of State is becoming a laughingstock as a result.

The Palestinians have been cynical about Kerry’s efforts from the beginning. Before this latest trip, one unnamed Palestinian “senior official” expressed his pessimism, saying that the Palestinian position of insisting that Israel release Palestinian prisoners and cease all settlement activity has not changed and neither has the Israeli position. Israel, for its part, continues to mouth platitudes about supporting Kerry’s efforts while acting to thwart them on the ground at every turn.

But while the Israelis are making the right official statements, they are also sneering at Kerry. The Israeli journalist Barak Ravid sums up the view of Kerry, both in Israel and among more veteran diplomatic hands in the US: “A senior Israeli official who has met with Kerry several times said the secretary of state has a messianic enthusiasm for the Israeli-Palestinian issue and acts like someone who was sent to bring the redemption. A Western official familiar with Kerry’s activity agreed with this assessment. ‘Sometimes there’s a feeling that Kerry thinks the only reason his predecessors in the job didn’t bring about a peace agreement is that they weren’t John Kerry,’ he said.”

This is not a negotiator who is inspiring confidence either at home or abroad. And he’s allowing Israel to make a fool of him. Even if this is, as one hopes, a strategy to move the United States out of the center of this conflict, which it is politically incapable of resolving, the cost is becoming very high. And while Israel laughs at Kerry, the only Israeli cabinet member who has shown any semblance of interest even in the failed Oslo process, Tzipi Livni, is isolated in that cabinet and fending off assaults from her left and right as she debates the governmental majority over whether Israel is even interested in a two-state solution. Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi, two of the four major coalition partners, both officially oppose it in their party platforms. The other two, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu, both officially support some kind of two-state solution, but with conditions that are incompatible with any conceivable agreement.

Kerry’s credibility as Secretary of State is off to a shaky start, to say the least, and the lack of regard with which he is being held by not only the Israelis but also the Palestinians is going to hurt him throughout the world and especially in the Middle East. In the worst case scenario, that will severely handicap US diplomatic options, which would inevitably mean a focus on non-diplomatic means to secure perceived US interests.

In the article, Ravid mentions former US Secretary of State James Baker, who managed to get the ultra-right wing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid Conference, which ultimately led to the Oslo peace process. The surrounding circumstances have certainly changed in more than twenty years since Baker’s day. But while the circumstances that both forced and allowed Baker and his boss, George H.W. Bush, to push Shamir to Madrid are radically different, that’s not the greatest factor.

The real difference is that Baker and Bush were willing to exercise real pressure on Israel to get Shamir to acquiesce. That is something Obama has repeatedly shown he won’t do. No matter how insulting Netanyahu’s behavior, no matter how much Israel acts to counter the best interests of the United States, as well as of itself, Obama will do no more than make mild statements calling Israel “unhelpful.” And Israel couldn’t care less about that.

It’s easy, and certainly correct, to blame AIPAC for this state of affairs. But even AIPAC has its limits, and they cannot brazenly defy a second-term President who is determined to get something done. Bush the Elder did it. Bill Clinton did it at Wye River. Even Bush the Younger did it in 2003, when he reduced Israel’s loan guarantees after Israel refused to alter the route of its security fence according to US wishes.

Somehow, Obama can’t find the same backbone. And ultimately, even if Kerry’s efforts were far more sensible than they are, without that level of presidential backing — a level that all of Obama’s predecessors reached, despite their own one-sided and destructively myopic support of Israeli excesses — there is no chance for success.