PM Netanyahu is cornered, and the US shouldn’t save him

Posted: April 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: The Jewish Agency for Israe)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is cornered. Netanyahu is looking for a diplomatic initiative that would save him from a UN recognition of a Palestinian state, followed by a declaration of independence, in the coming fall. What a couple of years of pressure from an American president didn’t do, Palestinian unilateralism did.

The Israeli Prime Minister has no hope of winning a majority at the UN’s general assembly, yet he still wishes to get some of the western Europeans counties on his side, possibly also Russia. But most of the European leaders don’t trust him personally, and doubt his ability or desire to take real action that would end 44 years of occupation. Caught between the international pressure and his rightwing partners—which he himself brought into the coalition—Netanyahu seems to be moving in circles. He told the German Chancellor he would present a diplomatic initiative in a major speech, then, when speculations on the content of his plan began, his proxies told the Israeli media that Netanyahu never promised any new declarations.

Now Netanyahu is at it again: reports of a new offer are leaked to local papers, Shimon Peres is sent to the White House carrying diplomatic messages, and a new venue is chosen for the historic announcement: the US congress, where Netanyahu enjoys more respect and support than in the Israeli Knesset.

But even a dozen standing ovations for the Israeli Prime Minister on the Hill won’t hide the fact that he has nothing to say. According to Barak Ravid’s report in Harretz, Netanyahu’s “diplomatic initiative” consists of the re-deployment of some army units in the West Bank, without removing a single settlement; a small scale version of the Oslo accord – the same document that Netanyahu made his career opposing. Perhaps it’s time for him to send some flowers to Rabin’s grave.

It should be said again: there is absolutely no hope that Netanyahu will deliver on the Palestinian issue. He avoided any opportunity to generate some concrete moves in the important first two years of his term. He is now at the hands of his rightwing political partners, and most notably, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He has surrounded himself with rightwing advisors, the latest addition being Yaakov Amidror, the recently appointed national security advisor. There are even talks that Netanyahu is close again to Uri Elitzur, his former chief of staff who became a passionate advocate of the One-State Solution. And beside, the elections are only a couple of years ahead. Netanyahu won’t initiate a move that could backfire exactly when Israelis go to the polls.

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There is also some talk of an American initiative. Senator John Kerry suggested this week that the US could soon embark on yet another effort to renew negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps even present its own peace initiative. Speaking to a gathering in Washington of leaders from the Muslim world, Kerry said

“I suspect that it’s very possible that President Obama will even step out ahead of that and will possibly– I say possibly–make his own contribution to where he thinks the process ought to go in the meantime. Conceivably, that can come together in a responsible effort that produces a transition here,” Kerry said. “I think we can get to borders and the fundamental issues fairly quickly and its conceivable that between now and September we will do that.”

Many liberals think that a US peace plan is the way to go. Shortly after a visit to Israel The New Yorker editor, David Remnick, called for Obama to “speak clearly and firmly,” on the issue, meaning to present his own peace plan for a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

For a long time, this has also been the dominant view in the Israeli Left: That one day the US will “rescue” us by presenting Jerusalem with an offer that it can’t refuse. But if the past two years have taught us something, it’s that even an administration that is more sympathetic to the Palestinians is unable or unwilling to push Israeli out of the West Bank.

The hopes that president Obama will travel to Jerusalem to present a bold plan, and by the sheer power of his words will create a political change in Israel—perhaps even bring the left back to power—shows a troubling lack of understanding of Israeli culture and politics. If anything, such a visit would make Netanyahu stronger, by presenting him as a man who brought Obama to Jerusalem on his own terms.

UPDATE: Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported yesterday that the Administration is about to present guidelines for a peace effort, very similar to the Clinton parameters.  According to Yedioth, this will be done before Netanyahu’s speech in Washington.

The administration should recognize the limits of its power. Everybody knows that “Israel is an internal political question in the US,” but that’s only half the problem. Confronting Israel is extremely costly on political currency, while getting Israelis and Palestinians talking or even signing an agreement is not that a big political achievement for a president. Israel can make life miserable for Obama, but it cannot make him more popular.

Another round of negotiations brokered by the US is bound to lead to the same failure we witnessed in previous talks and summits. At a certain point both parties will disagree on something. The US won’t be able to get concessions of Israel, so it will twist the Palestinian’s arms. The Palestinians will have to choose between a solution that won’t meet their basic needs, and leaving the talks, and being blamed for missing another great opportunity. Nothing good will come out of either.

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So, what’s the solution? From a US perspective, it’s very simple: Stay out of the way, and let others take the lead. European leaders are not facing the unique political difficulties an American president has to overcome when dealing with Israel. The international community can apply effective pressure on Jerusalem, and such pressure can change the political dynamic here. Netanyahu’s recent troubles at home may suggest that in a way, it’s already happening.