Reality Check: Bibi’s likely miscalculation

The belief that a weakened Obama will ease pressure on Israel to make concessions might prove spectacularly wrong.

Obama Netanyahu at White House 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Obama Netanyahu at White House 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
One person looking forward to the results of Tuesday’s Election Day results in the US is undoubtedly Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He would like to see nothing more than a weakened President Barack Obama and the predicted Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and possibly even the Senate.
Indeed, Netanyahu has worked hard toward this goal by turning down the unprecedented parcel of sweeteners Washington offered Jerusalem in return for extending the settlement freeze in the West Bank for a mere 60 days.
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He could have easily used his slick salesman’s charms to convince the public and his coalition partners that accepting this package was to the country’s long-term advantage, but he preferred to avoid handing Obama a much-needed foreign-policy achievement on the eve of the midterm elections.
Aside from Netanyahu’s basic antipathy to Democratic presidents and his long-standing links to the more right-wing elements of the Republican Party now in the ascendant, his calculation is a simple one: A weakened American president will have less flexibility when it comes to applying pressure on Israel.
IT’S NOT clear, however, that this calculation is correct. Obama’s election victory two years ago caused great consternation among the Israeli Right, particularly his stated intention to make an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement a priority for his administration, and saying such an accord was a national security interest of the US. His foreign policy speech in Cairo, in which he sought a new beginning between the US and the Muslim world, further heightened anxiety on the hilltops of Judea and Samaria.
Riding the wave of his electoral success, it seemed that Obama could succeed in breaking the logjam, but this never came to pass, and Obama himself has to take much of the blame.
He failed to balance his Cairo speech with an attempt to reach out to the Israeli public over the heads of the government. By the time he eventually gave an interview to Channel 2 it was much too late. The image of Barack Hussein Obama, an “anti-Israel” president, was already fixed in the minds of many.
And Obama’s shortsighted insistence on a total settlement freeze before restarting the talks pushed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into a difficult corner – how could he be more tolerant of settlement activity than the American president? Gone were the days when Abbas could visit Ehud Olmert at the prime ministerial residence in the heart of west Jerusalem to discuss the final borders of a peace agreement at the same time as bulldozers were working within the settlement blocs likely to remain part of Israel.
To be fair, the lack of progress in the peace process cannot solely be laid at Obama’s feet. Abbas is the uncharismatic leader of only half the Palestinian people, while Netanyahu has taken a grudging one step forward, two steps back approach in his dealings with the Palestinians, using the right-wing coalition partners he chose to bring into government as an excuse for not advancing quicker.
BUT THE belief that a politically weakened Obama will ease the pressure on Israel to make concessions in a bid to keep the faltering peace talks alive might prove spectacularly wrong.
Depending on the scale of Democratic losses, Obama might come to the conclusion that he is likely to be a one-term president and, having already been awarded (and mistakenly accepted) a Nobel Peace Prize, the determination he showed at the beginning of his term to produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement might be redoubled. With the Republican Party looking inward, Obama could trade its support for an Israeli-Palestinian deal in return for a compromise on domestic issues.
Another possibility is for the Palestinians to turn away from the American- sponsored negotiations and ask the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Obama had previously promised Netanyahu a 12-month guarantee that the US would veto such a move in return for renewing the settlement freeze for two months.
So far, thinking that Obama will be in a weaker position come Wednesday, Netanyahu has refused to agree to an extension. Abbas, meanwhile, used the visit of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit to Ramallah last week to signal his intention to seek UN support for a declaration of statehood within the next few months.
Were Abbas to go through with this move, there is no guarantee that the US will use its traditional veto in Israel’s favor at the Security Council. Obama certainly won’t be persuaded to use it on the basis of empty promises from Netanyahu – such a veto, flying in the face of much of world opinion, will demand a heavy payment on Israel’s part. Let’s not forget, Obama even told the UN in September that within a year “we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations, an independent sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
Regardless of the composition of the Houses of Congress, the next few months will see further pressure on Netanyahu to prove his sincerity when he says he has agreed to the two states for two peoples formula for peace.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.