Reality Check: Oval Office home truths

Netanyahu’s Washington visit already has begun under a cloud due to last week’s appointment of Ran Baratz as his public diplomacy chief.

November 8, 2015 20:24
4 minute read.
PM Netanyahu

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu board plane to US at Ben-Gurion Airport. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

As Barack Obama begins to count down the final year of his presidency, the US leader can at least take comfort in the fact that today (Monday) will be one of the last times he has to host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

As guests go Netanyahu is one of the most unlikeable, and very little has changed since his first visit to Washington as prime minister in 1996. Back then, Bill Clinton was reported to have remarked after the two men’s meeting: “Who the f*** does he think he is? Who’s the f***ing superpower here?”

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Even if America’s prestige in the world has fallen since those heady days at the end of the past century, the prime minister would do well to remember that he is traveling to Washington, cap in hand, to discuss the 10-year extension of the 2007 memorandum of understanding that covers US foreign aid to Israel, which currently stands at approximately $3 billion a year in military assistance.

Following this summer’s American-led deal with Iran over its nuclear program, Netanyahu also wants to see a significant American upgrading of the military hardware it supplies to Israel. Given the way Netanyahu tried his best to undermine the Iran deal through unprecedented involvement in US domestic politics, regardless of the serious damage this caused to Israel’s status as a non-partisan issue in America, it will be interesting to learn how the prime minister straddles this part of the conversation.

Of course, Netanyahu being Netanyahu, the visit has already begun under a cloud due to last week’s appointment of Ran Baratz as his public diplomacy chief. Baratz’s private Facebook posts in which he called the US president an anti-Semite and accused US Secretary of State John Kerry of having the intellect of a 12-year-old are not just the uncouth comments of someone unfitted to the post to which Netanyahu appointed him; more worryingly they also accurately reflect what passes for thinking in Netanyahu’s milieu.

For these people, the fact that Obama has publicly committed in writing that Israel will be the first country to receive the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet next year, and increased assistance for missile defense, means nothing.

Nor are they prepared to recognize the Obama’s administration’s work in opposing an French initiative at the United Nations for a Security Council resolution to impose a final peace deal on Israel and the Palestinians, or the fact that despite long-standing American objections to Israel’s settlement policies (yes, even under Republican presidents), the US has not pushed for a Security Council vote on settlements.

As far as Baratz and the other hardline ideologues Netanyahu has defiantly and deliberately placed in sensitive diplomatic posts – Danny Danon as UN ambassador and Tzipi Hotovely as deputy foreign minister – are concerned, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is no barrier to peace and anybody who even thinks differently should be viewed as being hostile to the Jewish state.

THEREFORE, AND NOT surprisingly given the make-up of Israel’s government, the renewal of Palestinian terrorism and the ineffectiveness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the White House has lowered expectations for the Netanyahu visit, throwing in the towel on trying to secure a two-state agreement and peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians before Obama leaves office. As Rob Malley, Obama’s senior Middle East adviser, briefed journalists at the end of last week: “The president has reached the conclusion that, barring a major shift, the parties are not going to be in the position to negotiate a final-status agreement.”

But the prime minister and his acolytes should not be too quick to hang up the bunting to celebrate the death of the peace process.

According to Malley, the main thing Obama wants to hear from Netanyahu is how the prime minister, in the absence of peace talks, still wants to move forward to prevent a one-state solution.

In this, Obama is not alone. The citizens of Israel also deserve to learn from their prime minister how Netanyahu intends to preserve Israel as a democratic and Jewish state. The continued occupation of the West Bank is untenable if Israel is to remain a democracy, while a one-state solution will eventually, on pure demographic grounds, bring an end to the Zionist dream.

Since first becoming prime minister two decades ago, Netanyahu has singularly failed to provide a convincing vision for Israel’s future and his do-nothing policies have only resulted in Palestinian terrorism on the one hand and increasing Israeli diplomatic isolation on the other. Obama should show his true concern for Israel by raising these points forcefully with Netanyahu, both privately and publicly, at their meeting today.

After all, with no more elections to fight and already marked down as anti-Semite by Netanyahu’s supporters, Obama has nothing to lose, unlike Israel’s citizens facing more years of Netanyahu’s empty leadership.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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