Washington watch: The French connection

A pair of clichés come to mind when listening to the talk about reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations: be careful what you wish for, and nature abhors a vacuum.

April 1, 2015 17:47
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

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


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A reluctant Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed a twostate concept in 2009 and was twice dragged to the peace table by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for a series of failed negotiations doomed by the absence of a willing partner on either side of the table.

With their conflicting agendas, relations between Obama and Netanyahu steadily deteriorated. After setbacks in his first term, Obama began to feel Israeli-Palestinian peace was not possible under the present leadership but let Kerry give it a second-term try. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last month trashing Obama’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran was the prime minister’s message that he’s thrown in his lot with the Republicans in Congress and written off the lame-duck president.

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In the final hours before the Israeli election, Netanyahu said two things that drove the relationship to rock bottom.

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Obama didn’t buy Netanyahu’s attempt to walk back from his campaign vow of no Palestinian state by saying he only meant for the foreseeable future. Making matters worse was Netanyahu’s warning to his Jewish supporters that Arabs were voting in “droves.” To Obama that must have sounded as if Mitt Romney had gone on the air on November 6, 2012 to tell white Republicans to rush to the polls because African Americans were voting in droves.

Netanyahu’s wish is that Obama would forget about trying to make peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. He may get that wish, or at least a retreat from active peacemaking by Obama, but the results may include a diplomatic vacuum that could be Netanyahu’s worst nightmare. Since Netanyahu has resisted American efforts to revive peace talks, the Europeans want to step in and try their hand, and Obama may be willing to let them.

That should worry Netanyahu. He may have written off Obama and thrown his lot with the Republicans, but he knows that his friend House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t have a veto at the UN Security Council.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced last week that his government plans to introduce a Security Council resolution to revive the peace talks. It is expected to be similar to the one France circulated late last year setting a two-year deadline for concluding negotiations, but the United States blocked that and another by the Palestinians setting a setting a three-year deadline for ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state. Sponsors of the French initiative claim signals from Washington indicate Obama may be ready to reconsider his opposition to UN intervention.

Washington has historically insisted that Israeli- Arab peace negotiations are its turf and pushed the Europeans, the United Nations and the Russians to the sidelines. Now those powers want to play a bigger role, and they see Netanyahu’s obstinacy and his rift with the American president as their opening.

Security Council resolutions like the ones the French and Palestinians are apparently considering would not be enforceable, and the UN could not force Israel to recognize Palestine or withdraw from the West Bank.

But it could lead to various states acting on their own. The EU is Israel’s leading trading partner (as well as the Palestinian Authority’s top financial backer), and there are movements in several countries to impose sanctions and trade restrictions on Israel.

The next time around, though, the US president said he is undecided. He has several options. He can veto a Palestinian or French resolution, as he did in December, or abstain or even vote yes. He also can publish an American peace plan, which reportedly was prepared during last year’s failed round of talks led by Secretary Kerry. Another possibility is to publish a document detailing the positions of both sides in those and earlier talks, revealing what they agreed on already but weren’t telling their own people about.

Obama has said he is “reevaluating” the political/ diplomatic relationship – but insists there will be no change in the strategic relationship – and is noncommittal about how to respond to the UN initiatives Israel may want blocked. If Netanyahu hopes for more US vetoes at the UN, he’s got a lot of fence mending to do.

The White House has begun to tone down its rhetoric just as Netanyahu is ratcheting up his strident attacks on the administration in anticipation of a nuclear agreement with Iran, but don’t be fooled: we could be on the cusp of a major change in the Israeli-American alliance, triggered in large measure by a prime minister who mistakes local partisan politics for statesmanship and whose pre-election maneuvering has sunk his credibility here and around the world to record lows

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