Is Obama strong-arming Netanyahu into unity deal with the left?

Following the Likud’s decisive victory in last week’s elections, Netanyahu will soon be tasked by Israel’s president with forming a coalition government.

By
March 25, 2015 16:13
US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: REUTERS)

TEL AVIV - The Obama administration’s most recent threat to “re-evaluate” the US approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be exposed for what it is: a backhanded attempt to influence the composition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s forthcoming ruling coalition and pressure him into a unity deal with left-wing parties.

Following his Likud party’s decisive victory in last week’s elections, Netanyahu will soon be tasked by Israel’s president with forming a coalition government that must constitute at least 61 seats in the country’s 120-seat Knesset.

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The various potential allied parties are already preparing their list of conditions for entering the coalition as Netanyahu prepares for a Herculean politico-diplomatic process of balancing egos, overcoming conflict, responding to outlandish demands, and forging a stable coalition to move the new government forward.

With Likud’s 30 seats, Netanyahu maintains the possibility of forming a coalition with right-wing parties that will leave his biggest rival, Isaac Herzog of the left-leaning Zionist Union, in the opposition.

Pending the outcome of coalition negotiations, Netanyahu also could potentially form a coalition without the center-left Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid, who was fired as finance minister last year after he repeatedly accused Netanyahu of fostering bad relations with the White House.

If the economy-centric Kulanu party, led by Moshe Kahlon, joins Netanyahu’s coalition, as is widely expected, the prime minister will be able to form a coalition with right-wing and religious parties, most of whom share Netanyahu’s overall ideology and agenda, particularly with regard to delaying the formation of a Palestinian state and continued Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and eastern sections of Jerusalem.

Herzog’s party, by contrast, stands in sharp opposition to Netanyahu on those and many other core issues; calling for an immediate resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks and repeatedly criticizing the prime minister over expanding Jewish housing projects in the so-called pre-1967 borders.

However, it seems the White House has been sending not-so-clandestine signals that the US administration will punish Netanyahu if he forms a coalition with the right instead of a unity coalition with leftist parties.

Indeed, last Thursday, Foreign Policy magazine quoted Western diplomats stating the Obama administration is “edging closer” to abandoning years of blocking UN Security Council resolutions imposing so-called peace talks.

The magazine reported that the US administration may back a resolution calling for the resumption of talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state, according to the unnamed Western diplomats.

The magazine indicated that the Obama administration’s willingness to accept a UN resolution depends on the politics of Netanyahu’s soon-to-be formed coalition. If the new governing coalition consists of right-wing parties instead of a unity deal with the left, the likelihood of the US supporting UN action would increase, the magazine indicated.

Foreign Policy wrote:

US officials signaled a willingness to consider a UN resolution in the event that Netanyahu was re-elected and formed a coalition government opposed to peace talks. The United States has not yet circulated a draft, but diplomats say Washington has set some red lines and is unwilling to agree to set a fixed deadline for political talks to conclude.


“The more the new government veers to the right the more likely you will see something in New York,” the magazine quoted one unnamed Western diplomat as saying.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest affirmed to reporters the US will “re-evaluate our approach” toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after Netanyahu made election remarks appearing to back away from support for a Palestinian state.

That message was directly conveyed to Netanyahu during a phone call with Obama last week, according to a White House official speaking to the New York Times.

Obama’s latest excuse for a crisis with Bibi? On the eve of last week’s elections, Netanyahu stated in a video interview with Israel’s NRG news website: “I think that anyone who's going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving away territory to be used by radical Islamists to attack Israel.”

He said anyone “who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand.”

“The left does this time and time again,” Netanyahu said. “We are realistic and understand.”

The interviewer asked Netanyahu specifically if he meant that a Palestinian state would not be established under his premiership if he were re-elected. “Correct,” he replied.

Netanyahu has since given numerous interviews to the international media explaining he still supports a two-state solution. He said his election comments did not conflict with his acceptance of a roadmap aimed at creating a Palestinian state.

Instead, Netanyahu related, his remarks were expressing concern with the timing of creating such a state while the region undergoes turmoil and Israel finds itself threatened by Hamas in Gaza, by ISIS militants fighting Iranian Guards to the north, and ISIS allies arrested in the strategic West Bank.

Netanyahu affirmed to NBC News, "I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful, two-state solution."

Yet Obama persisted in his criticism of Netanyahu. “We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn't happen during his prime ministership, and so that's why we've got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don't see a chaotic situation in the region."

If only Obama applied this same logic to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party routinely incites anti-Jewish hatred, names streets and soccer stadiums after suicide bombers, calls for the destruction of Israel and maintains a “military wing,” the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, responsible for the wilful murder of hundreds of Israeli civilians. 

Meanwhile, Obama isn’t waiting on the sidelines. His administration’s seeming threats aimed at affecting the composition of Netanyahu’s next coalition represent only the latest US interference in Israel’s democratic process.

In a Jerusalem Post column last December, I first questioned whether or not the Obama administration was intentionally generating a crisis in US-Israeli relations, an entanglement utilized at every twist and turn by Netanyahu’s political rivals to shake up the country’s leadership. Did White House tentacles help inflame the coalition drama that provoked Netanyahu’s hesitant decision that month to dissolve parliament and schedule early elections?

The US administration has since faced a slew of questions about State Department funding to nonprofit groups tied to Israeli NGOs that tried, unsuccessfully, to defeat Netanyahu during the latest elections here. Whether or not Obama’s latest ploy prospers - that of strong-arming Netanyahu into what would surely be a highly dysfunctional left-right unity coalition - remains to be seen.


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