Overpressuring Israel Could Eventually Backfire


For a head of state to visit the White House and not pose for photographers is rare. For a key ally to be left to his own devices while the President withdraws to have dinner in private was, until this week, unheard of. Yet that is how Binyamin Netanyahu was treated by President Obama last Tuesday night. Senior commentators even went as far to say that the Prime Minister had received “the treatment reserved for the President of Equatorial Guinea”.

To be quite frank, Netanyahu’s unyielding coalition should take substantial blame for the political impasse with the White House attitude. The writing was already clearly on the wall- when Vice President Joe Biden was accosted with the surprise building announcement in Jerusalem, just hours before a tete-a-tete dinner party with the Netanyahu family in the Prime Minister’s home, which became a painfully embarrassing event. A similar, quite unnecessary repeat performance, publicizing the events at Sheikh Jarrah, just as Netanyahu was about to enter the White House, certainly contributed to the irksome nocturnal meeting in the president’s Oval room.

Moreover, in regard to strange diplomatic behavior, the abominable treatment of Turkey’s ambassador, by deputy foreign minister Ayalon, already raised eyebrows among Israel’s closest friends. This and some other embarrassing incidents, clearly signaled that something went out of control in Mr Netanyahu’s quite dubious coalition. It seems that the Jewish State, under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and his dominant Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is no longer the “Darling” of the western democratic community.

However the situation, in which Israel finds itself in the aftermath of the recent Washington Fiasco, is by far more complex than meets the eye. While the Likud leader now has to try to square the stringent demands of the Obama Administration, with his nationalist, ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who want him to stand up to Washington, even though Israel desperately needs US backing in confronting the looming threat of a nuclear Iran, the Obama Administration will achieve exactly the opposite of what was intended. The intense and exclusive pressure on Israel has already resulted in the hardening of Arab and Palestinian positions, and will scuttle, rather than initiate, real negotiations. Former Israeli leaders preceding Netanyahu have gone out of their way to propose lucrative deals to the Palestinian leadership, not to mention the Oslo Agreement 1993 and achieved precisely the opposite- the Intifada!

Barack Obama has already made history by being elected as the first black president in United States’ history and by being the first to bring about a substantial reform of the American healthcare system. He was elected on the basis of his promises to change the world order. Obama would very much like to enter history as the man who promoted and achieved a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and who brought about reconciliation between America and the Muslim world. In his rather problematic fashion, he regards Netanyahu and his government as the main element in foiling his ambitious initiatives and, with all due respect- wishful thinking aspirations.

In Mr Obama’s plan, March 2010 was supposed to be a month of reconciliation and overcoming misunderstandings and deteriorations in US-Israeli relations. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s follow-up visit to Washington were carefully planned to achieve these objectives. Unfortunately the two visits revealed only profound disagreements that the two sides will have great difficulty overcoming in the foreseeable future, if a more sensible approach will emerge.

Although the announcement of Israel’s, rather marginal plans, to build in Ramat Shlomo during Biden’s visit to Israel, set off a crisis, the United States exacerbated it out of proportion. Senior Obama administration figures, who cannot stomach Netanyahu and do not trust him, wanted to exploit the minor crisis so as to improve the conditions for entering proximity talks, and to show that the US can pressure Israel and alter its policy. Unfortunately, they overlooked the fact, that during the long and faltering history of miserable negotiations, the worst held, were so-called “proximity talks” set by various Washington officials.

President Obama wants an historic achievement exactly before beginning his re-election campaign, to improve his chances for victory, so he also set a unrealistic time-table to achieve a breakthrough, which none of his predecessors had made possible. Obama’s biggest mistake was to place the “explosive” Jerusalem issue at the top of his agenda. Judging by this dangerous step might reveal, that the American president either does not comprehend the complexity of this issue, or wishes to derail any future solution between the Jewish State and Palestine, then blaming Israel for the disaster that may follow.

The US demand for a total construction freeze only hardened the Palestinian position. Even when Netanyahu announced a temporary freeze in the West Bank and the United States welcomed this step, the Palestinian Authority persisted in its refusal to restart negotiations and demanded that the United States abide by its original position.

Thus Obama’s policy has achieved exactly the opposite of what it aimed to accomplish. It hardened the Palestinian position and delayed negotiations. In fact, despite Obama’s efforts to gain Muslim hearts, American credibility has eroded in the Middle East. However this loss is in no way related to Israel or to negotiations with the Palestinians. It began, with Obama’s historic, conciliatory address in Cairo in June 2009. Arab and Muslim states, both friendly and hostile, saw it as a revelation of weakness. Obama’s credibility was damaged even further by the widening gap between his declarations about US determination to deny Iran nuclear weapons and the ongoing failure to achieve that goal. US military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama’s conciliatory attitude towards Russia and a lack of a more determined stand against Global terrorism, hardly contribute to maintain the former US superpower leadership.

There are those, who already predict, that the ongoing crisis between Jerusalem and Washington will escalate into sanctions, even warning, that the Pentagon might cut the annual military aid to Israel. Such predictions seem rather baseless, judging by the very fact on which they were created. There is of course a traditional bond between Israel, the only democratic nation in the Middle East and the US, which, based on the bipartisan political support it gains, remains virtually unwavering.

But there is more at stake here. Israel is the biggest recipient of American aid after Afghanistan, today. But unlike most other countries, Israel’s aid is earmarked entirely for military spending. Under an agreement between the two allies, at least three-quarters of the aid must be spent with U.S. companies. Thus major defense firms, such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and many others —are receiving lucrative income annually, especially in time of crisis. Israel might get access to the latest American military technology, but American weapons makers — are securing their steady stream of income. No need to emphasize the political backlash, which such cuts could evolve if initiated by the Obama administration!

At best, on the Israel-Palestinian dilemma, Obama’s heavy handed approach can succeed only in the short term. In the longer term it will bring, as in all the previous cases, the opposite of what it seeks. The Palestinians and the Arabs have long dreamed that the United States will “do the work” for them; that is, to pressure Israel into accepting their terms for a settlement without having to make hard concessions themselves. Previous attempts only shifted the Israelis into a more determined stand to secure their interests. If President Obama will continue to adhere onto his present trend, making Jerusalem center point- then his policy will fail and the consequences might be much more dangerous, than his White House staffers can imagine.