Netanyahu and Obama: Name-Calling and its Discontents

The obsession in politics and diplomacy with decorum–largely a relic from the past–can easily distract people from the realities of the present. 8575956802_b0f1918361_zCase in point, the uproar over Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest article in the Atlantic, the headline of which, The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here, would seem important enough to warrant more attention than it has gotten so far.

Instead, the whisper of an unnamed “senior Obama administration official,” who called Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” has occupied headlines. And instead of taking a strong, or even a weak stance on Netanyahu’s repeated declarations about expanding settlement activity everywhere in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the White House has only tried to distance itself from the remark, describing it as “unauthorized” and “inappropriate.”

As Goldberg himself pointed out, the fact that Bibi is a chickenshit is not entirely a bad thing. Whatever else it does, it also makes him quite afraid to back up his rhetoric with action. Even in Gaza this summer, the ongoing slaughter seemed, from Netanyahu’s point of view, to be something that spiraled much further out of control than he had intended. Indeed, his constant shifting of the mission’s goal posts indicated the lack of any sort of planning beforehand. Political pressures kept driving him on, as they do with most of his actions. But at least the “chickenshit” was never going to attack Iran despite his bellicosity, as the United States seems to finally understand.

Being less of a leader and more of a leaf blowing in the political wind is an apt description of Netanyahu, and it is strongly suggested in Goldberg’s piece. But it also applies to the Obama administration, which has repeatedly refused to use the tools it has at its disposal to create real pressure on Israel to, at the very least, desist from its actions that are obviously intended to destroy any possibility of a two-state solution. So, chickenshit cuts both ways.

Maybe Goldberg intended the chickenshit comment to overshadow the rest of his point, maybe he didn’t. But the assertion that we are in a period of crisis for US-Israel relations is a very important one. The question is: are we?

The simple answer is no, but Goldberg is not wrong in suggesting that such a crisis could occur in the near future. One can understand why Goldberg focuses so much on personal clashes. Never in the history of Israel has there been a government that so arrogantly insulted the United States so frequently. Whether it’s Netanyahu, Finance Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, or some other member of the Knesset, anti-American statements have risen to unprecedented levels.

For their part, US officials have been getting just the tiniest bit harsher in their criticism of Israel, while Israeli officials escalate their anti-US rhetoric. And then there’s the endless stories about how much Obama and Netanyahu dislike each other, with Goldberg’s in the lead. The problem, of course, as it is presented in this narrative of interpersonal conflict, is bad communication, or mismatched personalities.

In reality, none of this is really about Bibi and Barack disliking each other. They do, but that is beside the point. It is the direction that Israel has decided to go in that is the problem.

Let’s start off by noting that the degree of the “crisis” is being massively overblown. There is a much bigger problem in Europe for Bibi than there is in the United States. The Europeans are actually threatening to take some action, not just calling Bibi names in whispers to reporters. Sweden’s recognition of Palestine as a state is just a first step in a series of actions that might be on the horizon from Europe, where Israel conducts the biggest share of its trade. When the United States gets to that point, as it has on occasion in the ever more distant past, then we can start wondering if there is a crisis in relations that might cause some small shift in the status quo.

The “chickenshit” epithet can apply to Obama just as much as it can to Netanyahu. He is a president with a non-confrontational style trying to govern with what is, arguably, the most defiant and combative Congress any president has ever had to deal with. And he is dealing with an Israeli government that is pursuing a very different strategy than its predecessors. The Israel of today no longer cares about the majority of the Jewish community in the United States. This Israel, correctly, determined that its ultimate desire to completely thwart a two-state solution and maintain an apartheid system over the Palestinians would never be acceptable to most American Jews. But most US Jews weren’t the ones providing the political power and, more importantly, the funding for congressional campaigns and for settlements in the West Bank.

The Jews that do provide these things, as well as the Christians, are right-wingers, either in their general politics or at least on Middle East policy (including policy toward the entire Arab world, Iran and Turkey). They are now the only ones Israel cares about. More liberal-minded devotees are not, at this stage, providing that much support for Israel, either economically or financially. Those of them who do provide this support will continue to check their otherwise liberal values at the Israeli door. The rest are not, in the estimate of the Netanyahu government, worth the compromises that must be made to garner their support.

In this circumstance, Israel has a freer hand in its actions. While Netanyahu announces more and more building plans in East Jerusalem and other sensitive parts of the Occupied Territories, Republicans, who stand a good chance of controlling both houses of Congress, are not criticizing Israeli actions in the slightest. Instead, as one would expect, they are attacking Obama for his insufficient support of Israel.

In this context, Israeli journalist Roi Ben-Yishai, one of Israel’s best, recently reported on Israel’s “new approach” to the Palestinians. It holds few surprises. Israel is not intending to return to talks, correctly believing they will be futile, and therefore would only make things worse. Israel’s assessment will remain correct until its own positions can be moderated by pressure like that of the Palestinians over the years.

The plan is then to have the quiescent Palestinian Authority (PA) assume control over Gaza and reinforce its control on the West Bank. In other words, marginalize Hamas throughout the Palestinian body politic. Under those circumstances, Israel would end the siege of Gaza and ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank as well. The idea is that the Palestinians can then build a functional economy, which Israel believes will cause the Palestinian people to oppose actions that could draw Israeli military reprisals. I rather doubt that would be the result, but right now, the delays in Palestinian international action imply that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is cooperating with Israel and Egypt on this effort, probably in the hope that this strategy would eliminate Hamas as a political rival.

This seems like another doomed plan, one that harkens back to old Israeli beliefs that Palestinian nationalism will eventually just go away. But we must recognize that this is happening with the silent approval of the United States. Egypt, in particular, would not work with Israel on such a plan if it believed that the United States would object. More to the point, the plan is also intended to provide the US with what it wants most: Palestinian silence. What American policy has always represented is the complete lack of importance placed on the welfare of the Palestinians, or anyone else (including ordinary Israelis) in the region, for that matter. The entire issue is only relevant insofar as it affects more “important” US concerns.

So, the Obama administration will likely allow Israel to proceed with its plans, even if it doesn’t believe those plans are likely to succeed. This is evident in the lack of material response to Israel’s direct challenge to the international consensus on a two-state solution.

The name-calling most recently highlighted by Goldberg merely reflects these disagreements and the fact that the increasingly populist and rightward tilt not only in the Israeli government but also in its population leads to verbose criticism of US officials, up to and including the president. Responses to such insults can be countered by Israel’s power in Congress in a way that more fundamental policy differences cannot. That frustrates some American officials, but it doesn’t provoke any material US response.

If Congress persists in pressuring the administration on its Iran policy, a pressure which most understand as directed by Jerusalem, Obama may well respond through the Palestinian issue. In that case, we might see a more direct counter to Israeli policies, such as a Security Council resolution condemning the settlements or even an “Obama Plan” basing a two-state solution on the 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem. That would be a turn of events not seen in decades, but Israel has also never worked so hard to undermine US goals on foreign policy matters as it has on Iran.

But make no mistake, if the Palestinians get any respite from the Obama administration it will be because of Israel’s meddling through Congress on the Iran issue. It will not be due to any Palestinian action, much less on the insulting attitude of Israeli officials or the personal dislike between the current Israeli leader and the president of the United States. It is, ultimately, all about policy priorities, not personalities.

At UN, Bibi Completes Trifecta of Hopelessness

After Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stirred up some controversy by terming Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza a “war of genocide” Netanyahu_speechat the UN General Assembly last week, there was some speculation that the Israeli prime minister would come in breathing fire. But all Benjamin Netanyahu presented in his Monday address was the same old smoke.

Netanyahu was expected to rail against the Palestinian Authority leader, but he merely said he was “refuting” Abbas’ “lies” and instead focused on bringing his two favorite themes together: the Islamic State (IS) and Hamas are the same thing, and Iran is trying to fool the world with a moderate president while trying to acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu addressed a largely empty hall, with mostly junior diplomats sitting through his speech, though billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, both staunch pro-Israel advocates, were also spotted in the hall. There was occasional applause but it mostly came from the Israeli delegation, a stark contrast to the kind of reception Bibi gets in the halls of Congress. Adelson apparently hosted Netanyahu for lunch following his speech.

Bibi has routinely made a fool of himself on the international stage. But what he says often plays fairly well in Israel, and it is always greeted with fawning adoration on Capitol Hill, though that means little—the response would be the same if he read from a phone book. Two years ago his Iranian cartoon bomb visual aid was ridiculed. This time he presented a blurry, unconvincing photo of children playing near what he claimed to be a rocket launcher. Few were impressed.

In fact, Bibi’s speech reeked of a desperation that has been a long time coming. True, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are struggling along right now, but not for the reasons he had hoped for. Both sides are stuck on the details of Iran’s future capacity for nuclear enrichment, but both sides are also still committed to finding a resolution. That may or may not happen, but even if talks fail, that desire will remain and no one, absolutely no one, is interested in Bibi’s ludicrous and illegitimate standard of preventing Iran from maintaining any enrichment program at all.

On Gaza, Bibi knows full well that even the Obama administration was displeased by the obviously illegal Israeli actions in the strip this summer. Yes, the US can probably still be counted on to frustrate any UN moves for consequences directed at Israel, but that American view remains problematic as it will only fan the flames of much greater outrage in Europe. Netanyahu would be well-advised to stop talking about Gaza, but instead he peddles the ridiculous line that “Hamas is ISIS.” Again, no one is buying.

Between ham-handed references to retiring New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and demonstrating his lack of geographic knowledge by claiming that Tel Aviv is as close to the Green Line (the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank) as the UN building is to Times Square (Tel Aviv is actually about five times as far from the Green Line), Netanyahu gave the impression of a man with nothing new to say. And, indeed, there was nothing new.

Perhaps somewhat notable in its absence was any mention of a two-state solution. Netanyahu used his well-worn line about his willingness to make “historic compromises” but said it in the context of declaring his opposition, rather than his support for peace. Here’s the full quote:

I’m ready to make a historic compromise, not because Israel occupies a foreign land. The people of Israel are not occupiers in the land of Israel. History, archaeology and common sense all make clear that we have had a singular attachment to this land for over 3,000 years. I want peace because I want to create a better future for my people, but it must be a genuine peace–one that is anchored in mutual recognition and enduring security arrangements–rock solid security arrangements on the ground, because you see, Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza created two militant Islamic enclaves on our borders for which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel, and these sobering experiences heightens Israel’s security concerns regarding potential territorial concessions in the future.

So, the lands is ours and maybe someday we’ll give the Palestinians a tiny bit if all of our conditions are met. That, in the Netanyahu dictionary, is “historical compromise.”

But Bibi did present his ideas of peace. Well, not exactly his idea. He stole the idea from his foreign minister, the far-right leader of the proto-fascist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman has proposed, on several occasions, that Israel seek peace with the so-called “moderate Arab states” and then pursue an agreement with the Palestinians. It is, of course, a non-starter, as absurd as closing one’s eyes and believing the conflict will simply go away. But this is what passes for diplomacy in Bibi’s speech to the United Nations.

As with Abbas, Bibi was primarily speaking to his audience at home, both in Israel and in the United States. Abbas, however, won points at home, perhaps enough to compensate for the distaste his use of the term “genocide” evoked elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu’s speech did much for anyone in Israel. It was a mere recycling of what have become clichés, and, while he did display his characteristic obstinacy, Bibi didn’t come across even as forceful as he has in other major speeches.

One point Netanyahu made has so far escaped notice, but in light of recent events bears scrutiny. He said that “…as prime minister of Israel, I’m entrusted with the awesome responsibility of ensuring the future of the Jewish people and the future of the Jewish state.”

Now, as protests became angrier over the summer, the inevitable, though generally isolated, incidents of anti-Semitism were often, and quite intentionally blended in analyses by defenders of Israel’s massive military campaign. The refrain, heard over and over, was that Jews should not be held accountable for Israel’s actions.

I agree completely. But the flip side of that is that Israel does not represent world Jewry. If a Jew in the US or France or Australia or Iran wants Israel to represent her, she should accept Israeli citizenship and move there. Netanyahu is quite correct that part of the job description of prime minister of any country is the security and well-being of that country’s citizens. But he is no more entrusted with my future, or the future of any other non-Israeli Jew, no matter how strong their Zionism may be, than David Cameron is responsible for Brits who have become citizens of other countries, or Angela Merkel is for German-Americans. They are all responsible for their citizens.

Indeed, the point is even stronger with Israel, which offers automatic citizenship to any Jew who emigrates there. Being of Jewish descent is sufficient to trigger that offer, something no other nation-state offers to descendants of its nation who are citizens of other states.

People can’t have it both ways. If they want to consider themselves Israelis and therefore have Netanyahu take responsibility for their well-being, then they are also responsible as any Israeli citizen is for their country’s actions. Most of us in the global, non-Israeli Jewish community do not want that responsibility, and so we are represented by the governments of our countries. Netanyahu should therefore worry about Israelis—and he’d do well to pay attention to ALL of his citizens and not just the Jewish ones—rather than trying to usurp responsibility for the Jews who didn’t elect him.

Obama met with Netanyahu two days after his UN address. At virtually the same time, the Israeli government was giving final approval to a new settlement in East Jerusalem that is widely understood to be the final nail in the coffin of the long-dead peace process. Between Obama’s barely a mention of Israel-Palestine, Abbas’ much more confrontational tone, and Netanyahu’s mantras, there was little hope left for the near future. If ever there was a time for powerful international intervention it is now. But with Abbas having announced a proposed Security Council resolution calling for Israel to end its occupation in 2016, and the United States having already signaled it would veto any such resolution, that doesn’t seem likely.

Egypt’s Gaza Truce Proposal: What Does it Mean?

This article appeared originally in an edited form at LobeLog.3286231988_476f56d43a_b

According to reports, Egypt has given both Israel and Hamas a take-it-or-leave-it plan for ending the current round of violence. It bears examination, not only for its own intrinsic worth, but also for the implications it has. As of this writing, Hamas has indicated it does not find the proposal “sufficient” in addressing their demands, and Israel has yet to respond directly.

Here is what has been reported: Continue reading

Another AIPAC Miscalculation?

When the history of pro-Israel lobbying in Washington is fully written, it may well be that the push for confrontation with Iran will be seen as a major turning point. On Monday, a consistently hawkish, pro-Israel Democrat, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), withdrew the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s docket. Menendez made the surprise move because a Republican member of the committee, Bob Corker (R-TN), was going to add an amendment intended to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

Judging from news reports in mainstream and far-right outlets, it seems the amendment was Corker’s idea. It would have required the U.S. president, upon reaching a deal with Iran, to submit a report to Congress within three days. Congress would then have a non-binding “vote of disapproval.” But AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, stood by the amendment, and one has to think that Corker would not have introduced it if he knew AIPAC would oppose it. AIPAC eased up on its pressure against negotiations with Iran earlier this year, but it has remained steadfast in its distrust of the diplomatic process, as has, of course, the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. AIPAC’s decision to support the Corker amendment, coupled with a ratcheting up of the rhetoric coming from Netanyahu against the negotiations in recent days, suggests a renewed campaign to derail Obama’s efforts to resolve the dispute with Iran diplomatically.

Perhaps even more notably, this episode marks another step in the increasing polarization of Israel as a domestic U.S. political issue. The Republicans have been working hard ever since Barack Obama got elected to “own” the issue of Israel. In this case, however, they and AIPAC may have overplayed their hand, just as it did at the beginning of the year with S. 1881, when it lined up with Republicans to try to strangle the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) between world powers and Iran in its crib.

The U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act had already generated some controversy, especially over a provision that would have allowed Israel to participate in the U.S.’ visa waiver program, which would make it easier for Israeli citizens to obtain American visas. The House of Representatives ended up amending the bill to address the initial objections to admitting Israel into that program program. The objection centered on Israel’s unwillingness to reciprocate in granting visas to U.S. citizens, a standard expectation of the program. The bill now addresses this with language that requires Israel to treat U.S. citizens (including Arab Americans) as it wishes the U.S. to treat Israelis and satisfy all other requirements of the visa waiver program. Many believe that other objections, specifically revolving around Israel’s espionage activities in the U.S. (which Israel vehemently denies but are well known in the U.S. intelligence community), are the reason for a recent spate of leaks to Newsweek magazine on the subject.

But aside from that piece, the legislation is a pretty standard piece of pro-Israel fluff, which would provide only a modest, small boost to existing cooperation between the United States and Israel in military, security and scientific arenas. Yet it appears quite possible that AIPAC helped Corker kill it, however unintentionally. Why did that happen?

This seems to have been a miscalculation on AIPAC’s part. If this amendment originated with Corker and not AIPAC, as seems likely, then it was clearly an attempt by the Tennessee Republican to drive a wedge between the “pro-Israel community” and the president. AIPAC backs the idea, but they surely treasure bi-partisan support for their initiatives in Congress much more, as indicated by their decision to back down on S. 1881 in February, especially after it ran up against a solid wall of Democratic opposition. Yet AIPAC has been remarkably passive in the face of Republican efforts to make Israel a partisan issue. Of course, Republicans have gotten a lot of help from Netanyahu (and now his new ambassador, Ron Dermer) on that score in recent years. But the alienation of liberal Democrats from pro-Israel sentiment is growing as a result. This amendment and its result constitute one more step in that direction.

AIPAC, and probably Corker as well, did not expect Menendez to pull a popular pro-Israel bill from the Senate docket. But Menendez appears to have recognized the difficult position this amendment would put Senate Democrats in. They cannot credibly oppose Obama on negotiations with Iran because their constituents support the talks and are deeply opposed to military action against Iran. Once Obama, in his State of the Union Address no less, declared that he was standing firm on negotiating seriously with Iran and then prevailed in the fight over S. 1881, it was clear that most Congressional Democrats would not challenge the president so long as the talks continued. So, if the Corker amendment was brought, Senate Democrats would either have to vote against their president or against AIPAC. Neither prospect held any appeal to Menendez. So he pulled the bill.

In many ways, Menendez and other Senate Democrats who are particularly close to AIPAC just want to keep their heads down for the next two years. If Obama can work out a viable deal with Iran, that’s great. If not, they are probably hoping that a more hawkish leader, like Hillary Clinton, who will be more in line with AIPAC on Middle East policy, will win in 2016. Until then, they are going to have to walk a tightrope.

Republicans, meanwhile, are likely to continue their efforts to “own” the issue. Corker will probably back down on his amendment eventually so that the rest of the bill can go through. But that will mean that the Republicans can claim that Menendez, well-known as among the most pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, thwarted AIPAC’s plans.

If, as AIPAC surely hopes, the next president, from either party, is more in tune with the Netanyahu government than Obama, then a rightward move of the Israel issue serves it well in the long-term. Indeed, in such a case, AIPAC would probably prefer a Democrat again in the White House, reinforcing the group’s bipartisan image and influence, while Israel gets framed in Washington in a more comfortable way than it is now.

Still, this could backfire. Aggressive Republican efforts to make Israel a partisan issue — and AIPAC’s acquiescence in that strategy — are alienating a lot of Jews and a lot of Democrats. Most of those groups want a secure Israel, to be sure. But they also want to avoid war with Iran and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. AIPAC is working against both of the latter goals.

AIPAC will have no problem keeping Republicans in their camp, unless more radical groups, such as Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and, of course, the Republican Jewish Coalition, that criticized its capitulation on S. 1881 persuade its wealthiest donors to desert it. But Democrats might find it increasingly difficult to toe the AIPAC line, even with a more hawkish figure like Clinton in the White House. AIPAC has come a long way by justifiably touting its bipartisanship. Should “pro-Israel” become a Republican label, however, they stand to lose a great deal in the long run. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

A Tragedy of Errors: U.S. Incompetence in Israel-Palestine Talks, Part II

An edited version of this piece appeared at LobeLog. If you missed Part I, check it out here.

In part one of this piece, I began sketching the picture that emerges from the words of U.S. diplomats to an Israeli reporter. There’s

As Abbas and Obama grimly cast their eyes down, Bibi savors a triumph over hope and peace.

As Abbas and Obama grimly cast their eyes down, Bibi savors a triumph over hope and peace.

more here, and the image that emerges is one where the United States is ultimately the responsible party for the failure of not only this round of peace talks, but one after another of them. I’ll start here by completing the analysis of what was reported in YNet.

On the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” the group of anonymous U.S. diplomats told Israeli reporter Nahum Barnea: “We couldn’t understand why it bothered him (Abbas) so much. For us, the Americans, the Jewish identity of Israel is obvious. …The more Israel hardened its demands, the more the Palestinian refusal deepened. Israel made this into a huge deal – a position that wouldn’t change under any circumstances. The Palestinians came to the conclusion that Israel was pulling a nasty trick on them. They suspected there was an effort to get from them approval of the Zionist narrative.”

Seeing this in print really did shock me. There were three objections to this idea from the Palestinians. They were there all along, yet the U.S. speakers seem aware of only one of them. That one is the validation of the Zionist narrative over the Palestinian. The other two were that such recognition (a thing unheard of in international relations, one hastens to add, and something which Israel demands only from the Palestinians and no one else) would necessarily give a Palestinian stamp of approval to discrimination against non-Jews in Israel, most of whom are Palestinian; and that it would, by definition, preclude the question of the return of Palestinian refugees, a matter Abbas may be resigned to, but which he wants to deal with in negotiations in the hope that some redress for the refugees can be settled upon. Continue reading