Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli settlements

Obama’s Threats Won’t Hurt Netanyahu

Few savvy observers took Secretary of State John Kerry at his word earlier this week when he piously proclaimed that the United States had no thought of attempting to intervene in Israel’s elections. The animus bordering on hatred felt by President Obama’s inner circle toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not exactly a secret. But it didn’t take long for a leak to an Israeli newspaper that is among the PM’s most rabid foes to dispel any doubts about the administration’s hopes that it could somehow derail his bid for a fourth term. The report from Barak Ravid, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent that the White House held a meeting whose purpose was to plan possible future sanctions against Israel to punish it for continuing to build homes for Jews in Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocs, is a shot fired over Netanyahu’s bow. But the real question here is not so much Obama’s desire to see the prime minister defeated, as it is why anyone in the administration thinks this gambit will succeed now after the same tactics have failed repeatedly before.

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Few savvy observers took Secretary of State John Kerry at his word earlier this week when he piously proclaimed that the United States had no thought of attempting to intervene in Israel’s elections. The animus bordering on hatred felt by President Obama’s inner circle toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not exactly a secret. But it didn’t take long for a leak to an Israeli newspaper that is among the PM’s most rabid foes to dispel any doubts about the administration’s hopes that it could somehow derail his bid for a fourth term. The report from Barak Ravid, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent that the White House held a meeting whose purpose was to plan possible future sanctions against Israel to punish it for continuing to build homes for Jews in Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocs, is a shot fired over Netanyahu’s bow. But the real question here is not so much Obama’s desire to see the prime minister defeated, as it is why anyone in the administration thinks this gambit will succeed now after the same tactics have failed repeatedly before.

The Haaretz report makes it clear that the administration is looking ahead to another two years of escalating confrontation with Israel. The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly demonstrated its lack of interest in negotiating, let alone signing a peace agreement that would end the conflict. Nor do the construction of homes for Jews in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem or even in the settlement blocs that everyone (including President Obama) knows would remain inside Israel if peace were ever achieved constitute any sort of obstacle to a two-state solution. But the administration still clings to the illusion that the problem is Netanyahu and settlements rather than a Palestinian political culture that makes peace impossible and PA head Mahmoud Abbas’s incitement to violence. That means it is entirely possible that, as Ravid breathlessly predicts, the administration will no longer make do with bitter denunciations of Israeli actions in the future but will, instead adopt measures intended to punish the Jewish state. That might take the form of refraining from vetoing anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations Security Council or other actions intended to downgrade or undermine the alliance between the two countries.

But the notion that picking yet another fight with Netanyahu will hurt his chances of reelection tells us more about the administration’s continued inability to understand Israel than anything else. After all, President Obama has repeatedly tried to do this throughout his first six years in office. But every time the U.S. attempted to use Jewish building in Jerusalem to attack Netanyahu, the only result was that the prime minister’s political standing at home increased. Though the PM is under attack right now from both foes on the left and a crowded field of rivals on the right, there seems little reason to believe that his policies on Jerusalem or even on negotiations with the Palestinians has rendered him vulnerable. All the polls agree that Israeli voters appear poised to elect a Knesset that is even further skewed to the right than the existing government that was lambasted by American critics for being not interested in concessions to the Palestinians.

As even Ravid notes in the conclusion to his piece, Netanyahu always gains when he can portray himself as standing up to foreign pressure on security issues. The reason for that is that, unlike the Obama administration and Israel’s liberal critics abroad, the Israeli voting public has been paying attention to what the Palestinians have said and done during the last 20 years of peace processing. Israel has tried to trade land for peace and gotten more terror and no peace. At the present moment it is inconceivable that any Israeli government of any stripe would withdraw from the West Bank in order to make way for what could be an even larger and more dangerous version of the Hamas terror state that currently exists in Gaza.

It is true that the decimated Israeli left and their liberal American supporters such as the J Street lobby believe that the Jewish state must be saved from itself by heavy-handed U.S. intervention. Indeed, it is only by international pressure designed to thwart the verdict of Israeli democracy that their misguided agenda might be implemented. But it boggles the mind as to how anyone, either in Israel or the U.S., would think that the Israeli voting public would regard efforts to thwart their judgment in this manner as a good reason to vote against Netanyahu. Indeed, the commitment of the U.S. to a policy of heavy-handed pressure is the best argument for Netanyahu continuing in office since he is the country’s only major political figure with the experience and the tenacity to stand up to such treatment from the country’s sole superpower ally.

The three months between now and the election constitute a political eternity and Netanyahu cannot take his victory for granted even if the polls indicate he is the only possible choice for prime minister. But if Obama and his friends at Haaretz imagine such leaks will lead to Netanyahu’s downfall, it’s clear they have learned nothing from the past six years of such efforts.

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The Real Obstacle to Peace: Israel’s Critics

The Obama administration joined the chorus of United Nations, European and Arab critics of Israel this week when it blasted the decision of the Netanyahu government to approve plans to build new housing in two Jerusalem neighborhoods and one in the adjacent suburban area known as E1. While the Obama administration did not join its European allies and other members of the UN Security Council declaring the building illegal and an obstacle to a two-state solution that must cease immediately, it did declare that the activity put peace “further at risk.” Israel’s critics make the argument that this sort of condemnation is heightening the country’s isolation and is to blame for the lopsided vote in favor of upgrading the Palestinian Authority’s status at the UN earlier this month. But the hypocrisy of these charges makes it easy to understand why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is ignoring them.

The point here isn’t just—as we have repeatedly pointed out here at Contentions—that building in these areas of Jerusalem as well as in E1 wouldn’t prevent a two-state solution were the Palestinians inclined to negotiate with Israel to get one. The building within Jerusalem’s city limits in Jewish neighborhoods that were built decades ago, such as Ramat Sharon and Gilo, are in places that no one envisions being given to the Palestinians even in the most generous offer possible. The same is true of the new Givat Hamatos project. As for the E1 area in between the city and the suburb of Ma’ale Adumim, it, too, is in an area that Israel has always intended to keep. That is a point underlined by the fact that it was Yitzhak Rabin that put it under the jurisdiction of the adjacent Jewish town.

But the real hypocrisy isn’t the fact that all those countries as well as the Palestinians know very well that it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to a two-state solution if Israel built 100,000 new homes in these places or none at all. It is the fact that these countries continue to ignore the fact that it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate and who continue to issue statements making clear their intention to destroy Israel without drawing much comment from nations that are supposedly so interested in peace.

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The Obama administration joined the chorus of United Nations, European and Arab critics of Israel this week when it blasted the decision of the Netanyahu government to approve plans to build new housing in two Jerusalem neighborhoods and one in the adjacent suburban area known as E1. While the Obama administration did not join its European allies and other members of the UN Security Council declaring the building illegal and an obstacle to a two-state solution that must cease immediately, it did declare that the activity put peace “further at risk.” Israel’s critics make the argument that this sort of condemnation is heightening the country’s isolation and is to blame for the lopsided vote in favor of upgrading the Palestinian Authority’s status at the UN earlier this month. But the hypocrisy of these charges makes it easy to understand why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is ignoring them.

The point here isn’t just—as we have repeatedly pointed out here at Contentions—that building in these areas of Jerusalem as well as in E1 wouldn’t prevent a two-state solution were the Palestinians inclined to negotiate with Israel to get one. The building within Jerusalem’s city limits in Jewish neighborhoods that were built decades ago, such as Ramat Sharon and Gilo, are in places that no one envisions being given to the Palestinians even in the most generous offer possible. The same is true of the new Givat Hamatos project. As for the E1 area in between the city and the suburb of Ma’ale Adumim, it, too, is in an area that Israel has always intended to keep. That is a point underlined by the fact that it was Yitzhak Rabin that put it under the jurisdiction of the adjacent Jewish town.

But the real hypocrisy isn’t the fact that all those countries as well as the Palestinians know very well that it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to a two-state solution if Israel built 100,000 new homes in these places or none at all. It is the fact that these countries continue to ignore the fact that it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate and who continue to issue statements making clear their intention to destroy Israel without drawing much comment from nations that are supposedly so interested in peace.

After all, it was just 11 days ago that Khaled Mashaal, the head of the Hamas movement that already rules the independent Palestinian state in all but name, stated the following to a cheering crowd in Gaza: 

Palestine from the river to the sea, from the north to the south, is our land and we will never give up one inch or any part of it.

Though the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas subsequently took issue with this declaration and then disingenuously tried to assert that Hamas has already recognized Israel (it hasn’t), the fact remains that the Fatah leader has signed a unity agreement with its Islamist partner that sooner or later will be put into effect. Do the U.S. or the Europeans really expect Israel to hand over more land to such an alliance? There is a broad consensus inside Israel against any such plan that explains why Netanyahu’s coalition is set to romp in next month’s elections.

Nor do the claims that Israel’s building plans make it harder for Abbas hold up. Were Netanyahu building new towns deep inside the West Bank, as the settlement movement would like him to do, it could be credibly argued that such plans would prevent the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. But why would that be true of building in existing Jewish neighborhoods on territory that would be part of the land swaps that even President Obama has acknowledged would be part of a deal that was based on the 1967 lines?

The problem here is not just that what Israel is doing is no obstacle to peace. It is that by joining in condemnations of building inside Jerusalem, President Obama and the Europeans are encouraging the Palestinians to believe that they will someday force the Jewish state to give up not just the West Bank but its capital too. An end to the conflict will only come on the day when the Palestinian so-called moderates like Abbas and extremists like Meshaal understand this. Far from Netanyahu being the obstacle to peace, it is the administration and its friends at the UN that are doing more to make that goal impossible than the Israelis.  

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