Obama, Bennett agree: Keep Netanyahu guessing

The PM has two swords dangling above his head: Bennett’s bill to retroactively legalize settlement outposts, and the possibility Obama might let an anti-Israel resolution go through the UNSC.

December 3, 2016 11:41
Obama and Netanyahu

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu meet in New York on Septmber 21. (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the following sequence of events would be nothing less than a scenario from hell.

On December 25, the first day of Hanukka and the day by which the High Court of Justice ordered that the settlement outpost of Amona must be dismantled, IDF soldiers might very well be called upon to trudge up to that Jewish community in Samaria and forcibly drag away its residents.

Passions will flare, the images will be gut-wrenching, and the country – with flashbacks to the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the first evacuation of Amona in 2006 – will be torn.

And then, a couple of days later and thousands of miles away in the UN Security Council, an anti-settlement resolution calling the settlements illegal and demanding their immediate dismantlement could very well pass, with outgoing US President Barack Obama possibly allowing it to do so by abstaining on the measure, and not using the US veto.

Talk about losing on all fronts.

In such a case, Netanyahu would face considerable domestic political fallout from giving the order to tear down Amona. And this fallout would only be compounded by pictures from the world body not praising him for the move, but rather going further and slamming Israel for all settlements.

For Netanyahu, it would be an excruciating double whammy: Forcibly evicting Jews from their homes, and getting pummeled by the international community at the same time.

And that is only one nightmare scenario for the premier.

Another one goes like this: Legislation calling for the retroactive legalization of Jewish homes built on private Palestinian property in the West Bank – a bill that was temporarily shelved on Wednesday after it ran into coalition difficulties – eventually passes in one form or another.

The Right would celebrate for a few minutes – though the Supreme Court would probably end the celebration a short time later and shoot down the law – and the world, including Washington in the final days of the Obama presidency, would go crazy.

Instead of a single anti-settlement resolution in the UN, a more far-reaching resolution calling for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, may be put forward – with a timetable, to boot. And it is this one – not a more limited anti-settlement resolution – that Obama, seething over the legalization of heretofore illegal outposts, might decide not to veto.

President-elect Donald Trump might oppose such a measure – thinking it would end any chance of him being able to broker what he has called the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians – but Trump does not take office until January 20.

Obama, seeing other pieces of his legacy threatened by Trump, and lobbied heavily by some European governments and NGOs to leave a lasting mark on the Mideast, might be so rattled by the outpost legislation that he would take a dramatic step to counter it. And then, by the time Trump does enter office, it will be very difficult for him to undo what was already done at Turtle Bay.

Neither of those scenarios are science fiction.

Either one could conceivably transpire.

BAYIT YEHUDI chairman Naftali Bennett and the Amona residents and supporters could spare Netanyahu at least part of this nightmare by agreeing to the settlers voluntarily leaving the outpost and relocating nearby – and not demand to be repaid at this time with the bill to legalize illegal outposts as a quid pro quo.

This would prevent the issue from coming to a head now, under the Obama Administration and with threats of UN Security Council resolutions looming large. In another few weeks, with a new administration in office that might not be as forcefully opposed to all settlements everywhere, the US reaction might be different.

But Bayit Yehudi sees the current crisis over Amona as an opportunity to act for its constituents. What is at stake is not only the few dozen homes in Amona, but also thousands of others scattered in various outposts that were also built on private Palestinian land. The High Court-mandated December 25 deadline for the evacuation of Amona is an opportunity for it to be seen as not only saving Amona, but the other outposts as well. That has considerable political benefits in the battle for the Likud over rightwing voters.

So why make life easier now for Netanyahu, especially when they can score some political points? In addition, Bayit Yehudi and others to their right have been complaining for some time that Netanyahu has shelved building in Judea and Samaria under the pretense that Obama is holding him back. But now, they argue, the Obama administration is on its way out the door, and Netanyahu has a golden opportunity if not to build, then – at the very least – not to dismantle what has been built.

Were there trust between Netanyahu and Bayit Yehudi, or if the party genuinely believed that Netanyahu was interested in ultimately building beyond the settlement blocs and the security fence, they might cut him a break. But there is no trust, and so Bayit Yehudi is engaged in political brinkmanship.

At a certain point, however, Bennett will have to decide whether it is really in his interest to push Netanyahu over the cliff.

Coalition discipline broke down on Wednesday when the bill to retroactively legalize the outposts was shelved. The lack of coalition discipline that day was uncomfortable for the government, but it was only for one day. Does the Right want to bring down the government over this issue? Does it want to repeat what happened in 1992, when it toppled the Likud-led government of Yitzhak Shamir, only to wake up the next day with the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin? Obviously not. Bayit Yehudi realizes the current government, from its perspective, is probably as good as it gets. To push the envelope now too far – to bring down the government over this bill at a time when a new administration is about to take office in Washington that may have a more sympathetic view of the settlement enterprise – would be self-destructive.

So Bennett will probably pull back from the brink, but not until the last minute. Why let Netanyahu off the hook early? Why not create the impression among the Right – a pool of voters for whom Bayit Yehudi competes with the Likud – that Bayit Yehudi is the true champion of the settlements, and that Netanyahu waffles on the issue and can’t be counted on? Obama, likewise, has no interest in making life easier for the prime minister.

For months administration officials have said that the president and his advisers have not yet decided on what course of action to pursue during the interregnum between the elections on November 8 and the formal end of the Obama presidency on January 20.

The administration has been extremely careful not to reveal its hand regarding what the president would do if a resolution on new parameters came before the Security Council, effectively replacing UN Security Council resolution 242 which for so long has been the baseline for all diplomatic efforts. Likewise, they have avoided answering what he would do if there was a new push for recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN, or an anti-settlement resolution.

The administration could have let on, but it has not, and there is a reason: a feeling that keeping Netanyahu guessing, not letting him know what to expect at the UN, will moderate his actions.

For instance, Netanyahu would perhaps have acted differently – and not lobbied his own security cabinet as he did this week against the outpost bill – had he been guaranteed that the US would veto an anti-Israel resolution at the Security Council.

Israeli uncertainty, from an American point of view, has its benefits. And there is indeed uncertainty, both in Israel and even in Congress, about what Obama might do.

That uncertainty was manifest this week, when Netanyahu said, as he has on numerous occasions: “I expect that in the twilight of President Obama’s tenure he will stand by what he said in 2011, that the way to achieve peace does not run through Security Council resolutions, but rather direct negotiations with the Palestinians, which has been the US position for years.”

At the UN General Assembly in 2011, Obama said of the Mideast conflict: “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”

Even the US House of Representatives is uncertain where the president is going, as evidenced by the bipartisan resolution adopted this week reaffirming support for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and opposing anti-Israel resolutions at the Security Council or attempts there to impose a solution on the parties. Had the House known for certain what Obama has planned for his remaining seven weeks in office, such a resolution might have been superfluous.

Obama and Bennett view the Mideast in starkly different terms. The last few days have shown, however, that they do have one thing in common: an interest – albeit for vastly different reasons – in keeping Netanyahu both squirming and guessing

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