Diplomacy: The waiting game

3 weeks after Netanyahu returned from an extremely difficult US meeting, the PM has succeeded in taking the sting out of Obama's bite - by doing nothing.

By
April 16, 2010 16:35
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with US Pr

netanyahu obama 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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For Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his six senior ministers, known collectively as the septet, Pessah – and the scattered holidays and days of commemoration that follow – could not have come at a better time.

As everyone knows, in this country it is always possible around festival time to push off dreaded things on the “to do” list until after the holidays.

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And, indeed, it seems Netanyahu has used the holidays – Pessah, Mimouna, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and now Remembrance Day and Independence Day – as ways to effectively dodge having to give a frontal response to a list of demands US President Barack Obama reportedly placed before him at their chilly meeting last month.

“We’ll deal with it after the holiday,” a government source said of these demands soon after Netanyahu came back from the meeting, just three days before Pessah. One didn’t think to ask at the time which holiday was being referred to, but – in retrospect – that would have been a legitimate question, not necessarily a wisecrack.

And, as Pessah folded into Yom Hashoah which is about to fold into Yom Ha’atzmaut, the septet continues a series of meetings, creating the impression the government is resolutely discussing the issues Obama slammed on the table. The only problem is that no one really knows what the septet is deliberating, because these conversations are secret and almost nothing about them is being leaked.

The net result is that in the three weeks since Netanyahu returned from what was widely characterized as an extremely difficult meeting in Washington, he has – through delay – succeeded in taking the sting out of Obama’s bite.

Immediately after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting in the White House, there was a feeling of great urgency, that the US president must be given an answer immediately... or else. But, as time passes, so does that sense of urgency. This may be the true reason Netanyahu didn’t travel to Washington this week for Obama’s Nuclear Security Conference – he didn’t want to give him a chance to restoke the flames.



While the Prime Minister Office’s stated reason for Netanyahu’s absence from the nuclear parley was that he did not want to give the Muslim countries there a chance to gang up on Israel over the nuclear issue, that this issue was barely raised left a lingering thought that perhaps something else was at play in his decision not to attend.

Perhaps Netanyahu just didn’t want to return to Washington right now, put his head back in the lion’s mouth, give Obama another chance to “dis” him, thereby again filling the diplomatic tires with an air of urgency that he has spent the last three weeks trying to deflate.

Netanyahu is playing for time, clearly trying to kick this can down the road as far as possible.

With Obama reportedly demanding that he freeze construction in east Jerusalem for four months, extend the 10-month housing-start moratorium in the settlements when it expires on September 27 and deal with substantive issues during the indirect talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu is not going to be able to affirmatively answer all those demands.

Interestingly enough, one of the most difficult demands – and one of the reasons the indirect proximity talks have not gotten off the ground – is Israeli opposition to having the US shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah carrying messages about issues such as settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. The concern is that if the Americans are in the middle, the Palestinians will stiffen their demands, hoping that the US will then step in with proposals of its own which will be more to their liking.

So Netanyahu wants to buy time. If there is another blowup when the US doesn’t like the responses coming from Jerusalem, then it might as well come as close to the US midterm elections as possible to deter, possibly, an overly sharp administration response.

Those who say this is insolent meddling in the US political process should take a look at the headline on an op-ed this week in The Los Angeles Times by veteran peace negotiator – and no great Netanyahu enthusiast – Aaron David Miller. The piece, “US acts as though it seeks regime change in Israel,” raises the question of “whether Washington is interested in bringing about a new, more pliable Israeli government.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time America meddled in Israeli politics,” wrote Miller, who concluded that attempts to crown Kadima leader Tzipi Livni were doomed to failure and could boomerang against the administration. “In fact, the notion that the United States doesn’t interfere in Israeli politics is about as absurd as the proposition that the Israelis don’t meddle in ours,” he wrote.

Whether Israel is directly meddling in US politics at this time is open for argument. But one thing indisputable is that the Israel issue, and the administration’s treatment of Israel, will be on the agenda in the US midterm elections.

THAT THIS will be the case became apparent earlier in the week, when 76 senators signed a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to ensure that the recent tensions not harm the relationship.

The letter was co-initiated by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), both of whom are up for reelection in November, and both of whom could use not only the Jewish vote in their states, but also the campaign contributions that come from Jewish donors.

An article last month in the Washington-based insider newspaper and Web site The Hill quoted high profile Jewish Democrats as cautioning that their party could lose significant financial support and votes as a result of Obama’s treatment of Israel.

“The impact on the Democratic Party could be significant,” the report read. “Jewish Democratic donors are believed to make up 25 percent to 50 percent of the party’s major contributors – those who give more than $25,000 – according to sources familiar with Jewish fund-raising. Some Jewish fund-raisers estimate pro-Israel donors give $20 million to $30 million to federal races in an election cycle. They also make up an active segment of the electorate in swing states such as Florida, where Democrats and Republicans are contesting an open Senate seat.”

Keeping all that in mind, it was interesting to see who did – and even more interesting who did not – sign the Senate letter to Clinton.

Among those who didn’t sign were 20 Democrats – including several nationally-known names, such as John Kerry (Massachusetts), Dianne Feinstein (California), Robert Byrd (West Virginia) , Dick Durbin (Illinois), Mark Udall (Colorado), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Richard Lugar (Indiana). The Democrats currently have 57 seats, meaning that 35% of the Democrats in the Senate did not sign.

Three Republicans also didn’t sign – Judd Gregg (New Hampshire), Michael Enzi (Wyoming) and Bob Corker (Tennessee). Gregg, however, is not seeking reelection. The Republicans hold 41 seats, meaning that only 7% of the Republicans did not sign. The 24th person who did not sign was an Independent: Bernard Sanders from Vermont.

Of the 24 senators who did not sign, only two are up for reelection in November – Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).

A spokesman for Reid told The Jerusalem Post that as majority leader he does not sign group letters, but that he “strongly supports the sentiments expressed in the letter.” The rest of the 25 incumbents who will be running in some 36 races in November did sign.

A breakdown of the numbers is significant for a number of reasons. First, it confirms a trend that is increasingly picking up statistical evidence, that while support for Israel spans party lines, it is particularly strong among Republicans.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby pointed out this week that while a recent Gallup poll showed that 67% of Americans have a favorable view of Israel and 63% of the public stand with it in its conflict with the Palestinians, support among Republicans is a “stratospheric 85%,” compared to an “anemic 48%” among Democrats.

Likewise, Jacoby pointed out 91 Democratic congressmen, more than one-third of the Democrats in the House, did not sign a bipartisan letter to Clinton sent by the House last month that was similar to the recent Senate letter. Seven Republicans refused to sign that letter.

A breakdown of the names of those affixed, and not affixed, to the Senate letter is also telling because it indicates that those seeking reelection are indeed concerned about how the Israel-US tension could impact on their races. Those running wanted their names on the letter.

Despite having a string of successes over the last three weeks, starting with health care, the START treaty with Russia and then what appeared to be a successful Nuclear Security Conference in Washington, Obama’s poll numbers dipped to their lowest ever on Thursday, with an AP poll saying that only 49% of the public approves of the way he is doing his job. And the numbers for the Democratic Congress are even worse.

While it is clear that Obama’s treatment of Israel will not be a main focus for voters in November (not even for Jewish voters), the issue does create background music. One of Obama’s electoral weaknesses is the perception that he is aligned with the “radical left,” that he is trying to socialize America. Distancing himself form Israel could, in almost a subconscious way, reinforce that attitude among some. It’s not necessarily the music Obama will want to be broadcast over the next few months.

Which, again, is why Netanyahu wants to play for time, thinking that the closer we get to November, the more reticent Obama will be for a bruising, public clash.

But is Netanyahu right? Is this a proper read?

The answer is not clear, and if one looks carefully at what Obama said at a press conference Tuesday at the end of the nuclear summit, one could find evidence on both sides of the argument.

“I think that the need for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the Arab states remains as critical as ever,” Obama said. “And the truth is, in some of these conflicts the United States can’t impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of old patterns of antagonism.”


Those words, a seeming step back from an idea floated recently that the US was on the verge of imposing a peace plan on the sides, obviously found favor in the Prime Minister’s Office.

But any joy had to be short lived, because in the next sentence Obama said the US would stay “constantly engaged” because solving this conflict was not only important for the sides, but also “a vital national security interest of the United States.”

“Whether we like it or not,” he said, “We remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”

Those words, with the suggestion that a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis could cost American blood, do not sound like the words of a man who is going to back off  – even in an election year. Unless, of course, those now up for election signal him, as they did in their letter to Clinton, to tone things down. Then the question becomes whether Obama will pay attention to the signal. Netanyahu, by waiting things out, is gambling that he will.

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