Commentary Magazine


Topic: Netanyahu’s government

For Once, Israel Prefers an Ally to an Enemy

Recent articles about the Obama administration’s preference for enemies over allies ring depressingly familiar to Israelis, whose country is a past master of that perverse art (see, for instance, its treatment of the South Lebanon Army and the Druze). Thus it was encouraging to learn that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has for once preferred an ally to an enemy, by twice rejecting Qatar’s offer to restore low-level relations.

Qatar opened trade relations with Israel in 1996, then severed them during Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in January 2009. But about six months ago, Haaretz reported, Qatar offered to let Israel reopen its trade mission in Doha if Israel would let it bring large quantities of cement and other construction material into Gaza, grant it leadership over efforts to rebuild the Strip, acknowledge its regional status, and publicly laud its regional role. It reiterated this offer four months later. Both times, Israel refused.

The initial report attributed Israel’s refusal to security concerns: fear that Hamas would use the Qatari construction material “to build bunkers and reinforced positions for missile launches against Israel.” That in itself was encouraging: after 17 years of “risks for peace” that, without exception, led to suicide bombings and rocket barrages, it’s reassuring to know that this government puts security first. Still, reasonable people could disagree over whether the risk truly outweighed the benefits of relations with another Arab country.

But a subsequent report removed all doubts about the decision’s wisdom. The real reason for Israel’s refusal, it said, was not security but Egypt’s objection: at a time when Cairo is taking enormous flak from the Arab world for blockading Gaza’s southern border, at Israel’s request, it would be intolerable for Israel to let Qatar become the Arab world’s hero by breaking the blockade.

Israel has many legitimate grievances against Egypt, from its viciously anti-Semitic state-controlled press to its insane effort to make Israel, rather than Iran, the focus of this month’s NPT Review Conference. Nevertheless, Egypt has on balance proved a valuable ally. Qatar has proved the opposite.

Unlike Qatar, Egypt has never used Israel’s counterterrorism efforts as an excuse for severing its ties with Jerusalem. Moreover, it has led Arab opposition to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas front, whereas Qatar has cozied up to this front: for instance, Doha brokered the 2008 agreement that granted Hezbollah veto power over Lebanon’s government, and it is planning joint military exercises with Iran.

And unlike Qatar, which seeks to bolster Gaza’s Hamas government by rebuilding the Strip, Egypt, after some initial faltering, is now striving to undermine Hamas by enforcing the blockade. And it’s working: in part because Hamas can no longer smuggle large quantities of cash across the Egyptian border, its revenues have fallen steeply, forcing it to impose new taxes that have proved deeply unpopular.

Thus for all its flaws, the Egyptian alliance is worth preserving — and certainly shouldn’t be sacrificed to gain a “friend” like Qatar, which has consistently worked against Israel’s interests. That may seem self-evident. But given Israel’s history of favoring enemies over allies, Netanyahu’s government deserves kudos for recognizing it.

Recent articles about the Obama administration’s preference for enemies over allies ring depressingly familiar to Israelis, whose country is a past master of that perverse art (see, for instance, its treatment of the South Lebanon Army and the Druze). Thus it was encouraging to learn that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has for once preferred an ally to an enemy, by twice rejecting Qatar’s offer to restore low-level relations.

Qatar opened trade relations with Israel in 1996, then severed them during Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in January 2009. But about six months ago, Haaretz reported, Qatar offered to let Israel reopen its trade mission in Doha if Israel would let it bring large quantities of cement and other construction material into Gaza, grant it leadership over efforts to rebuild the Strip, acknowledge its regional status, and publicly laud its regional role. It reiterated this offer four months later. Both times, Israel refused.

The initial report attributed Israel’s refusal to security concerns: fear that Hamas would use the Qatari construction material “to build bunkers and reinforced positions for missile launches against Israel.” That in itself was encouraging: after 17 years of “risks for peace” that, without exception, led to suicide bombings and rocket barrages, it’s reassuring to know that this government puts security first. Still, reasonable people could disagree over whether the risk truly outweighed the benefits of relations with another Arab country.

But a subsequent report removed all doubts about the decision’s wisdom. The real reason for Israel’s refusal, it said, was not security but Egypt’s objection: at a time when Cairo is taking enormous flak from the Arab world for blockading Gaza’s southern border, at Israel’s request, it would be intolerable for Israel to let Qatar become the Arab world’s hero by breaking the blockade.

Israel has many legitimate grievances against Egypt, from its viciously anti-Semitic state-controlled press to its insane effort to make Israel, rather than Iran, the focus of this month’s NPT Review Conference. Nevertheless, Egypt has on balance proved a valuable ally. Qatar has proved the opposite.

Unlike Qatar, Egypt has never used Israel’s counterterrorism efforts as an excuse for severing its ties with Jerusalem. Moreover, it has led Arab opposition to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas front, whereas Qatar has cozied up to this front: for instance, Doha brokered the 2008 agreement that granted Hezbollah veto power over Lebanon’s government, and it is planning joint military exercises with Iran.

And unlike Qatar, which seeks to bolster Gaza’s Hamas government by rebuilding the Strip, Egypt, after some initial faltering, is now striving to undermine Hamas by enforcing the blockade. And it’s working: in part because Hamas can no longer smuggle large quantities of cash across the Egyptian border, its revenues have fallen steeply, forcing it to impose new taxes that have proved deeply unpopular.

Thus for all its flaws, the Egyptian alliance is worth preserving — and certainly shouldn’t be sacrificed to gain a “friend” like Qatar, which has consistently worked against Israel’s interests. That may seem self-evident. But given Israel’s history of favoring enemies over allies, Netanyahu’s government deserves kudos for recognizing it.

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Bibi Tells Obama “Officially”: No Jerusalem Housing Freeze

According to the AP, Bibi has told Obama — “officially” — to forget his Jerusalem housing freeze:

Aides to Israel’s prime minister said Thursday that he has officially rejected President Barack Obama’s demand to suspend all construction in contested east Jerusalem, a move that threatens to entrench a year-old deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

The aides said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his government’s position to Obama over the weekend, ahead of the scheduled arrival later Thursday of the U.S. president’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell.

This report suggests that Bibi may have offered some other “confidence building gestures.” (“The release of some Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails; the easing of the flow of goods into the Gaza strip, and the removal of more roadblocks in the West Bank.”) And of course the Palestinians are threatening to walk from the proximity talks, having been served up a ready-made excuse by the Obami.

The players all continue the useless charade. The Palestinians claim outrage. Israel will be pressured to cough up more concessions. And for what? To lure the Palestinians back to “proximity” talks — where precisely nothing productive will be accomplished. This is what passes for smart diplomacy. It is hard even for the most die-hard peace processors to pretend this is doing anything but aggravating all sides and straining U.S.-Israeli relations to the breaking point.

What is most notable in the reports is this nugget:

U.S. officials said Mr. Netanyahu’s government has been communicating much of its position through the White House’s senior Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, at times bypassing the Obama administration’s special Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell.

That decision has been interpreted by some in the administration as an attempt to sideline Mr. Mitchell in favor of Mr. Ross, who has advocated U.S. cooperation with Mr. Netanyahu, rather than confrontation. Mr. Ross has publicly taken positions in line with Mr. Netanyahu’s government, particularly the centrality of stopping Iran’s nuclear program as a means to underpin Mideast peace efforts.

That tells you all you need to know about Israel’s confidence in Mitchell and the prospects for the proximity talks.

According to the AP, Bibi has told Obama — “officially” — to forget his Jerusalem housing freeze:

Aides to Israel’s prime minister said Thursday that he has officially rejected President Barack Obama’s demand to suspend all construction in contested east Jerusalem, a move that threatens to entrench a year-old deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

The aides said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his government’s position to Obama over the weekend, ahead of the scheduled arrival later Thursday of the U.S. president’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell.

This report suggests that Bibi may have offered some other “confidence building gestures.” (“The release of some Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails; the easing of the flow of goods into the Gaza strip, and the removal of more roadblocks in the West Bank.”) And of course the Palestinians are threatening to walk from the proximity talks, having been served up a ready-made excuse by the Obami.

The players all continue the useless charade. The Palestinians claim outrage. Israel will be pressured to cough up more concessions. And for what? To lure the Palestinians back to “proximity” talks — where precisely nothing productive will be accomplished. This is what passes for smart diplomacy. It is hard even for the most die-hard peace processors to pretend this is doing anything but aggravating all sides and straining U.S.-Israeli relations to the breaking point.

What is most notable in the reports is this nugget:

U.S. officials said Mr. Netanyahu’s government has been communicating much of its position through the White House’s senior Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, at times bypassing the Obama administration’s special Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell.

That decision has been interpreted by some in the administration as an attempt to sideline Mr. Mitchell in favor of Mr. Ross, who has advocated U.S. cooperation with Mr. Netanyahu, rather than confrontation. Mr. Ross has publicly taken positions in line with Mr. Netanyahu’s government, particularly the centrality of stopping Iran’s nuclear program as a means to underpin Mideast peace efforts.

That tells you all you need to know about Israel’s confidence in Mitchell and the prospects for the proximity talks.

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Obami’s Latest Israel Gambit Flops

Once again, the Obami’s bullying has come to naught. Bibi Netanyahu and his government are not amused nor persuaded by the Obami onslaught over Jerusalem housing permits or the suggestion that an imposed peace deal might be in the offing. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said it would reject any moves by the Obama administration to set its own timeline and benchmarks for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, potentially establishing a new fault line between the U.S. and Israel. … Senior White House officials, such as National Security Adviser James Jones, have also discussed recently the prospects of Washington proposing its own Mideast plan, though U.S. diplomats stressed this past week that such a move wasn’t imminent or agreed upon.

These developments have rankled Mr. Netanyahu’s government, which is already at odds with Mr. Obama over the issue of Jewish building in disputed East Jerusalem.

“I don’t believe this will be accepted by the administration because it will be a grave mistake. … The solution has to be homegrown,” Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal late Sunday. …

“The longstanding Israeli position, not of this government only, but of successive Israeli governments, is that the Israelis and the Palestinians have to live together in peace and that an agreement has to be negotiated between them directly,” said a senior Netanyahu administration official.

Of course this was entirely foreseeable. So once again one must ask of the Obami Israel policy: what is the point? Rather than absorb the lessons of 2009 — that the Israeli government cannot be strong-armed and that Bibi’s government can’t be toppled by the likes of Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Obama — the Obami have repeated and intensified their efforts to squeeze our ally. Yes, maybe this time we can use Jerusalem to pry them loose! Ah, the threat of an imposed peace — that’ll do it! But alas, all we’ve done, apparently is create a wedge between the U.S. and our ally, communicated to the Palestinians that they should just hold firm, and telegraphed to Israel’s neighbors that we are flaky friends.

The Obami now have two options. First, as they did with the settlement gambit, they can simply fold up their tents and go back to endless, fruitless rounds of shuttle diplomacy. Alternatively, they can try out their latest, already rejected brainstorm and see if maybe, just maybe, the Israelis will finally cave. In all of this, the Obami have set themselves apart from every prior administration, both in the degree to which they would willingly damage the U.S.-Israel relationship and in the inanity of their diplomatic efforts. It is proof positive that dramatic, even “historic” change can be a very dangerous thing.

Once again, the Obami’s bullying has come to naught. Bibi Netanyahu and his government are not amused nor persuaded by the Obami onslaught over Jerusalem housing permits or the suggestion that an imposed peace deal might be in the offing. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said it would reject any moves by the Obama administration to set its own timeline and benchmarks for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, potentially establishing a new fault line between the U.S. and Israel. … Senior White House officials, such as National Security Adviser James Jones, have also discussed recently the prospects of Washington proposing its own Mideast plan, though U.S. diplomats stressed this past week that such a move wasn’t imminent or agreed upon.

These developments have rankled Mr. Netanyahu’s government, which is already at odds with Mr. Obama over the issue of Jewish building in disputed East Jerusalem.

“I don’t believe this will be accepted by the administration because it will be a grave mistake. … The solution has to be homegrown,” Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal late Sunday. …

“The longstanding Israeli position, not of this government only, but of successive Israeli governments, is that the Israelis and the Palestinians have to live together in peace and that an agreement has to be negotiated between them directly,” said a senior Netanyahu administration official.

Of course this was entirely foreseeable. So once again one must ask of the Obami Israel policy: what is the point? Rather than absorb the lessons of 2009 — that the Israeli government cannot be strong-armed and that Bibi’s government can’t be toppled by the likes of Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Obama — the Obami have repeated and intensified their efforts to squeeze our ally. Yes, maybe this time we can use Jerusalem to pry them loose! Ah, the threat of an imposed peace — that’ll do it! But alas, all we’ve done, apparently is create a wedge between the U.S. and our ally, communicated to the Palestinians that they should just hold firm, and telegraphed to Israel’s neighbors that we are flaky friends.

The Obami now have two options. First, as they did with the settlement gambit, they can simply fold up their tents and go back to endless, fruitless rounds of shuttle diplomacy. Alternatively, they can try out their latest, already rejected brainstorm and see if maybe, just maybe, the Israelis will finally cave. In all of this, the Obami have set themselves apart from every prior administration, both in the degree to which they would willingly damage the U.S.-Israel relationship and in the inanity of their diplomatic efforts. It is proof positive that dramatic, even “historic” change can be a very dangerous thing.

Read Less

The Trouble with Fayyadism

Regular readers of Thomas Friedman were hardly surprised when he used the controversy over an ill-timed announcement of a housing project in Jerusalem to write about the need for America to save Israel from itself this past weekend. The piece, titled “Driving Drunk in Jerusalem,” was a long-discredited argument pulled from Friedman’s file and dusted off for the umpteenth time.

Nevertheless, with some sense did he note that “only a right-wing prime minister, like Netanyahu, can make a deal over the West Bank; Netanyahu’s actual policies on the ground there have helped Palestinians grow their economy.” That’s true. If the Palestinians ever actually wanted to make peace, Netanyahu would be the one who could sell such a deal to his country. But although it is also true that, as Friedman wrote, “Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are as genuine and serious about working toward a solution as any Israel can hope to find,” that doesn’t mean there is any hope that Abbas and Fayyad have the will or the power to accept such a solution.

Friedman further develops this theme in today’s column, which celebrates “Fayyadism” — the idea that creating a viable, independent Palestinian state can define the future of the Middle East. Many serious people both here and in Israel think Fayyad is sincere about his desire to replace the empty Palestinian political culture, based on hatred for Israel, with a productive nationalism devoted to improving the lives of ordinary Arabs in the West Bank. But the Times columnist believes Netanyahu’s coalition partners are preventing the prime minister from fully embracing Fayyad and making peace. So he agrees with President Obama’s attempt to break up Netanyahu’s government and replace it with a more left-leaning one.

Yet like almost all of Friedman’s bright ideas for bettering our not-so-flat world, there is a fatal flaw to this theory. Fayyad may be a genuine moderate, but he lacks a constituency. Palestinians still prefer the guys with the guns who will never recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where the borders are placed or how much of Jerusalem is rendered Jew-free. If “Fayyadism” had any sort of a following, then Fayyad’s boss might have accepted Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of a Palestinian state in just about all of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem. Both Fayyad and Abbas still know that if they sign any peace agreement, that will be the end of Fatah, no matter how many concessions Obama forces upon Israel. The threat of Hamas and its Iranian patron hang over Palestinian moderates, and no amount of fantasizing by Friedman or Obama — or unilateral pressure on Israel — can wish that away.  The lack of Palestinian support for Fayyad’s vision of peace destroyed the previous government of Israel, which was more to the liking of Friedman and Obama. But as Obama’s American fans like to say, elections have consequences.

Rather than pressuring Israelis to adopt self-destructive policies they’ve already rejected at the ballot box, those trying to save Israel from itself should focus their attention on the gap between Fayyad and the rest of the Palestinians. Indeed, the effort to stop Jews from building in existing Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem — the focal point of the current dustup — encourages the Palestinian forces that are antithetical to “Fayyadism.” So long as Arabs think that outside parties can hammer Israel into submission and force the Jews to abandon their own land, it remains an upstream swim for those seeking to convince the Palestinians to abandon their belief in Israel’s destruction. Rather than aiding Fayyad, Obama’s attack on Jewish Jerusalem confirms once again that moderates have no chance to change a destructive and violent Palestinian political culture.

Regular readers of Thomas Friedman were hardly surprised when he used the controversy over an ill-timed announcement of a housing project in Jerusalem to write about the need for America to save Israel from itself this past weekend. The piece, titled “Driving Drunk in Jerusalem,” was a long-discredited argument pulled from Friedman’s file and dusted off for the umpteenth time.

Nevertheless, with some sense did he note that “only a right-wing prime minister, like Netanyahu, can make a deal over the West Bank; Netanyahu’s actual policies on the ground there have helped Palestinians grow their economy.” That’s true. If the Palestinians ever actually wanted to make peace, Netanyahu would be the one who could sell such a deal to his country. But although it is also true that, as Friedman wrote, “Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are as genuine and serious about working toward a solution as any Israel can hope to find,” that doesn’t mean there is any hope that Abbas and Fayyad have the will or the power to accept such a solution.

Friedman further develops this theme in today’s column, which celebrates “Fayyadism” — the idea that creating a viable, independent Palestinian state can define the future of the Middle East. Many serious people both here and in Israel think Fayyad is sincere about his desire to replace the empty Palestinian political culture, based on hatred for Israel, with a productive nationalism devoted to improving the lives of ordinary Arabs in the West Bank. But the Times columnist believes Netanyahu’s coalition partners are preventing the prime minister from fully embracing Fayyad and making peace. So he agrees with President Obama’s attempt to break up Netanyahu’s government and replace it with a more left-leaning one.

Yet like almost all of Friedman’s bright ideas for bettering our not-so-flat world, there is a fatal flaw to this theory. Fayyad may be a genuine moderate, but he lacks a constituency. Palestinians still prefer the guys with the guns who will never recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where the borders are placed or how much of Jerusalem is rendered Jew-free. If “Fayyadism” had any sort of a following, then Fayyad’s boss might have accepted Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of a Palestinian state in just about all of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem. Both Fayyad and Abbas still know that if they sign any peace agreement, that will be the end of Fatah, no matter how many concessions Obama forces upon Israel. The threat of Hamas and its Iranian patron hang over Palestinian moderates, and no amount of fantasizing by Friedman or Obama — or unilateral pressure on Israel — can wish that away.  The lack of Palestinian support for Fayyad’s vision of peace destroyed the previous government of Israel, which was more to the liking of Friedman and Obama. But as Obama’s American fans like to say, elections have consequences.

Rather than pressuring Israelis to adopt self-destructive policies they’ve already rejected at the ballot box, those trying to save Israel from itself should focus their attention on the gap between Fayyad and the rest of the Palestinians. Indeed, the effort to stop Jews from building in existing Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem — the focal point of the current dustup — encourages the Palestinian forces that are antithetical to “Fayyadism.” So long as Arabs think that outside parties can hammer Israel into submission and force the Jews to abandon their own land, it remains an upstream swim for those seeking to convince the Palestinians to abandon their belief in Israel’s destruction. Rather than aiding Fayyad, Obama’s attack on Jewish Jerusalem confirms once again that moderates have no chance to change a destructive and violent Palestinian political culture.

Read Less




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