Jerusalem Report

Bibi sticks his neck out

The furious backlash from Washington suggests that this time Netanyahu may have seriously overplayed his hand on Iran.

US President Obama at White House Rose Garden
Photo by: Yuri Gripas / Reuters
The most neo-Conservative and Republican of Israeli prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu, has had the misfortune to have both his terms as leader coincide with those of Democratic US presidents with very different worldviews.

Now he seems to be doing all he can to change that.

His public spat with the American Administration over red lines on Iran’s drive to nuclear weaponry is being widely interpreted as an attempt to help his good friend, the Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, get elected in November.

The question is: How is this meddling in America’s internal affairs likely to impact on Israel’s future if, as seems more than likely, a miffed President Barack Obama is reelected? Obama’s supporters in government and the media have been quick to point to the president’s impressive record on military and diplomatic aid to Israel and his explicit public commitment to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons – and to tar Netanyahu as an ingrate who has violated cardinal rules of diplomacy and basic codes of friendship between allies.

The ferocity of their criticism was unprecedented. No Israeli prime minister, including Netanyahu himself, has ever been subjected to such a torrent of indignant fury. “I don’t think I’ve ever, in the 40 years I have been doing this, heard of an American ally trying to push us into war as blatantly and trying to influence an American election as blatantly as Bibi Netanyahu, and the Likud party in Israel, is doing right now. I think it’s absolutely outrageous and disgusting,” Time magazine’s Joe Klein fumed on MSN BC’s “Morning Joe.”

New Yorker editor David Remnick commented that it was “hard to overestimate the risks that Benjamin Netanyahu poses to the future of his own country.” And former New York Times editor Bill Keller slammed the “crude intervention in our politics,” warning that if reelected Obama was “unlikely to forget this exercise in manipulation by an Israeli leader he already has ample reason to mistrust.”

People in Obama’s corner were particularly irked by the fact that Netanyahu had done nothing to distance himself from a Romney claim that the president had “thrown Israel under the bus.” They were also incensed at Netanyahu’s insinuation that Obama cared more about Iran than Israel.

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, one of Israel’s staunchest supporter’s in Congress, fired off an angry letter to Netanyahu: “I am stunned by the remarks you made this week regarding US support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel? Are you saying that Israel, under President Obama, has not received more in annual security assistance from the United States than at any time in its history?” Fielding the flak, Netanyahu aides deny the prime minister is trying to influence the outcome of the election. But if his sole concern was stopping the Iranian bomb, why go public on the red lines? If he were not out to embarrass Obama or use the election run-up to twist the president’s arm, surely private exchanges with the American leadership would have been more effective? There is no special need to sound public alarm bells now. Even the most apocalyptic Israeli estimates put the Iranian bomb at least a year away.

Then there was the didactic tone of Netanyahu’s language, seemingly calculated to skewer the president. “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” he pontificated. His demand for red lines was reminiscent of an earlier domestic ploy: his insistence on a national consensus on the Palestinian issue, which paralyzed the Israeli center-left.

But Obama was unmoved. And the furious backlash from Washington suggests that this time the prime minister may have seriously overplayed his hand. Even senior Likud ministers now fear the strategy will boomerang – not only on Netanyahu, but on the country as a whole. A poll released in mid-September by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 59 percent of Americans say that the US should not come to Israel’s aid, if an Israeli strike against Iran triggers a regional war. If Netanyahu was trying to gain international legitimacy for a strike by showing up the vacillation of his chief ally, he seems to have achieved the opposite effect.

With so muc h to lose, why is Netanyahu playing this high-risk game? The question takes on added weight when one considers that on Iran, Obama seems a much better bet than Romney. He would be a second-term president, more readily able to act in the national interest; he is more ideologically committed to nonproliferation of nuclear weapons than any previous American president; he has promised not to allow Iran to go nuclear and to use force, if necessary, to prevent it; and, as a measure of his seriousness, his top defense officials briefed their Israeli counterparts on contingency plans for a strike.

Against that, Romney would be a first-term president, encumbered by the baggage of two unsuccessful wars started by a Republican predecessor and needing time to install a new administration. More importantly, he has a more isolationist view of America’s place in the world and would be loath to spend small-government dollars on foreign adventures.

No, the reason Netanyahu has been sticking his neck out for Romney is not Iran but Palestine. He is deeply concerned that if reelected, Obama will press hard for significant movement on the Palestinian track. Indeed, he said as much in a recent closed meeting with Likud hardliners. And if, in the American context, Netanyahu once acknowledged that he “speaks Republican,” – on the Palestinian issue, Romney speaks the language of the Likud.

Romney’s recorded assertions at a Florida fundraiser in May that “the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace,” that they are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel,” that a two-state solution would put the border seven miles from Tel Aviv and allow the Iranians to foment terror from the West Bank, and that “we have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it,” sounded like he had come straight out of a briefing by Netanyahu.

Formally, Netanyahu is committed to the two-state solution, vide his Bar- Ilan University speech of June 2009. But everything he has done since shows he doesn’t really believe in it, and that his commitment was made only to keep Obama and the rest of the international community at bay. He seems to be acting under the assumption that if Romney is elected, he and the new president will be able finally to bury the two-state idea. If that happens, Israel will likely face a new Palestinian uprising. It will also be confronted with the problem of an imminent Palestinian majority without political rights in the territory Israel governs.

Romney as president, however, may not go along with Netanyahu. America is committed to two states for two peoples, and it was a Republican president, George W Bush, who first made that commitment in his “vision speech” of June 2002.

Moreover, for wider US interests in the region, Romney may find it necessary to modify his position on the Palestinians.

The diff erence is that if Obama is reelected he will almost certainly be more proactive. If Netanyahu buckles under the pressure, and agrees to significant moves towards a two-state solution, that could be good for Israel. If, however, he gets into a headon confrontation with Obama, it could be disastrous. Israel-US relations would suffer, and Israel’s delegitimizers would have a field day. Obama may also pressure Israel on its presumed nuclear arsenal. If he wins, this will become evident in the runup to the planned conference on a nuclearfree Middle East scheduled for Helsinki in December.

Given the likelihood of a sticky outcome for Netanyahu, some speculated on the role of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, who backs both Romney and Netanyahu. Was he somewhere in the background pushing the prime minister to act against his own interests? Indeed, the wheel could come full circle, with pressure from Obama on Netanyahu impacting on Israeli domestic politics.

With elections likely any time next year, a reelected Netanyahu may feel compelled to form a more moderate government.

American pressure could even lead to his defeat by the center left – as occurred in 1999, when, just a few months before, as now, no one thought it possible.

Former cabinet minister Haim Ramon, ex- Labor and ex-Kadima, one of the architects of Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999, is working on an attractive center-left alternative, presumably led by a resurgent Tzipi Livni.

Ironically, if this gathers momentum, boosted here and there by a second Obama White House, Netanyahu’s gamble on the American election could end up costing him his job at home.


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