Recent reports in the Israeli media suggest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is worried that the final, lame duck year of US President Barack Obama’s administration may be payback time.
It is no secret that the president feels the prime minister has blocked every attempt he has made to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In fairness, Obama got off on the wrong foot and never fully recovered, starting with his demand for a settlement freeze at the outset and then failing to visit Israel on his June 2009 trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
But Netanyahu thwarted every administration initiative and joined up with Congressional Republicans to wage a bitter and blatantly partisan fight to kill the Iranian nuclear deal.
Obama has given up on trying to bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, which should make Netanyahu very happy since he never showed much interest. Punctuating that resistance, Netanyahu last year formed a narrow right-wing coalition dominated by fierce opponents to Palestinian statehood, giving the lie to his rhetoric about support for the two-state solution.
The French have called for an international peace conference and threatened to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine if their initiative fails. The Quartet of Middle East peacemakers – United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia – is preparing “recommendations” for reviving peace talks and rescuing the fading two-state option.
But before rejoicing that Obama has written off restarting peace negotiations, Netanyahu should recall the argument used by this and prior administrations to justify blocking and vetoing UN Security Council resolutions condemning settlements and demanding an end to the occupation. Washington has repeatedly declared it prefers direct negotiations and feels those UN measures would derail an ongoing peace process that held out hope, however remote, for success.
With no negotiations – except in the dreams of Secretary of State John Kerry and some European diplomats – and none in prospect, Washington has lost its justification for running interference at the UN for the Netanyahu government.
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Abstaining from or even supporting a UN resolution that it might have once vetoed could be a way to send Netanyahu a message of American displeasure.
But don’t look for anything before the November election. Obama won’t want to do anything that might damage Democratic candidates. But the 73 days between the election and the inauguration of the 45th president on January 20 – the interregnum – could be a different story.
The White House will be closely watching the extent to which Netanyahu and Ron Dermer, the former Republican operative he sent to Washington as his ambassador, meddle in this year’s elections. Four years ago Dermer helped organize fundraising in Israel for Mitt Romney and Netanyahu gave the GOP nominee his virtual endorsement.
During the interregnum there will be no Congress in session and Washington will be focused on the transition to a new administration and major power shifts on Capitol Hill. On top of that will be a national fatigue with politics. It will be a fine time to send messages.
It should be “out of a sincere effort to move things along in a direction toward ending the conflict,” a former senior US diplomat told me, “and not just to stick it to Netanyahu, as much as he deserves it.”
Obama may decide to follow Ronald Reagan’s example of a dramatic Mideast policy shift during the interregnum.
On December 14, 1988, Reagan announced US recognition of the PLO. The chief of staff to an outraged prime minister Yitzhak Shamir called friends in Washington demanding they “start a firestorm” of opposition to force Reagan to retreat. I got one of those calls when I was legislative director of AIPAC.
No one in the Senate wanted to strike the match.
The response from Republicans and Democrats alike, including Israel’s best friends, was that Reagan was sending a message to Shamir that he couldn’t keep saying no, and they agreed. Netanyahu is still saying “no” but more artfully than the blunt-spoken Shamir.
Reagan’s action was a “gift” to his chosen successor, George H. W. Bush, who wanted it done in this way so he wouldn’t take the heat from Israel’s friends and so he could begin pushing a peace process.
Obama is not going to recognize the state of Palestine before he leaves office (as the French have threatened if their effort to restart peace talks fails) but there are several options open to him.
In his farewell address, Obama may give his vision for peace in the Middle East, recounting his own efforts and the problems he encountered and speaking of the future of the US-Israel relationship.
The next time the French or others propose an amendment condemning settlements, calling for an international conference or setting a date-certain for ending the occupation, it will be more difficult for the United States to argue that such moves would threaten a peace process that doesn’t exist.
An American abstention could have the Reagan effect, strengthening the hand of the next president if he or she decides it is America’s best interest to pursue Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Other options include working with the Quartet to take a more activist role in promoting a settlement.
The group is currently looking to the Saudi-originated and Netanyahu-rejected Arab peace plan as their model.
Another possibility that has been discussed in this and previous administrations when an impasse was encountered would be to publish an American peace plan, an outline of what it would like to see in a final agreement.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog has warned that if Israel doesn’t take the initiative “we’ll have an accord imposed upon us.”
Netanyahu’s lament that the US is drifting away from Israel and the Middle East may make fodder for Republican presidential candidates this year, but it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy and the prime minister’s worst nightmare.
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