Today, the president of the United States told the prime minister of Israel he was reassessing America’s “options” with regard to Israel in light of remarks Benjamin Netanyahu made about potential Palestinian statehood and an election-day Facebook post urging Israeli right-wingers to go to the polls on Monday to counter a surge in Israeli Arab voters.
The crisis in the relationship we discuss in our new editorial statement has entered a new and potentially unprecedented phase.
It may well be that the president is going to present American Jews with a choice over the coming months no American president should ask us to make—to become parties to and participants in his effort to create what, in 2009, he called “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel.
First, to the two-state issue. There’s simply no question Netanyahu was willfully and purposefully misunderstood late last week when hostile reporters announced he had withdrawn his support for a two-state solution. That was not true. What he said was this: “I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to radical Islam against the state of Israel.” The key word is “today.” Today. He did not say never. He said such a state was impossible today, and that is simply a statement of fact. So when, in a television interview this afternoon, he told Andrea Mitchell that yes, he believed in the two-state solution, he was saying nothing new. Any minimally fair interpretation of Netanyahu’s remarks makes that clear. We are told Netanyahu reiterated the point in the phone call with the president, and that he was told Obama didn’t believe him.[UPDATE: In response to this piece, some have claimed I distorted Netanyahu’s view because he replied “indeed” when an interviewer asked whether he was saying there would be no Palestinian state during his premiership. But that “indeed” is entirely of a piece with the “today” comment—one can support the two-state solution as the only theoretical answer to the problem and still be pretty sure no such solution is in the cards for another four years. It was the Palestinians who walked away from the table in 2013, not Israel; and Gaza’s ruling Hamas party wasn’t even involved in the talks. Netanyahu’s own stated principles for a Palestinian state—that it renounce terror, recognize the Jewish state as a Jewish, forego the so-called “right of return”—would have been the basis for any negotiation, even by the Center-Left coalition, and the Palestinians are so far away from any such acknowledgments the issue of statehood was barely raised during the Israeli election campaign.]
The fact that the president is using the twisting of Netanyahu’s words as one basis for a reassessment of the relationship is the purest evidence yet of his hanging-judge cast of mind when it comes to Israel and its prime minister. He is looking for any excuse to come down hard on the foreign politician Obama loathes the most—and to create that “daylight” for which he is so eager.
Now to the question of Arab voters. Let me stipulate for the purposes of this discussion that the Facebook post was a terrible mistake, since it has had deleterious consequences and was entirely unnecessary. It came only a few hours before the polls closed and, as we now know, the size of Likud’s victory on Monday was so decisive nothing Bibi said so late could have done much to boost Likud’s enormous 200,000 margin over the second-place Zionist Union coalition. Let me stipulate as well that concerned American Jews have every right to feel what Likud did was wrong, although I think it is important to note no effort was made to suppress a single Arab vote but rather to frighten potential Likud voters with the prospect of a strong showing by the state’s non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Arab parties—to get them not to waste a vote on a smaller right-wing party but to go with Bibi instead.
But fine. If you want to hate what Netanyahu said, hate it. Here’s the thing: How the prime minister of Israel talks about Israeli citizens who possess equal rights under the law and have their own means of redress under the law if they are mistreated should have no basis whatever in the “assessment” of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel. The president has spent years making very nice patter with Turkey’s Erdogan and other foreign leaders whose treatment of minorities do not deserve mention alongside Israel’s and whose suffering small sub-populations have no means of achieving redress.
So even those who are furious with Netanyahu should really take a breath and a close look and consider this point carefully: The Arab-vote business is a pretext. American presidents, this one especially, typically do not revisit special strategic relationships based on election-day maneuvers in a democracy, however unpleasant they might find them. In my view, Obama is hoping once again to use liberal Jewish disaffection in the United States with Netanyahu as a wedge to give him space to make a major policy pivot from the special relationship—one for which he has hungered since he came into office.
Hovering over and above and behind all this is, of course, the negotiation with Iran—and Netanyahu’s standing to criticize it as the most influential foreign leader outside the United States with a view of it. Pummelling Bibi now and compelling him to take whatever steps he can to mollify the president before Obama announces he will accede to moves against Israel in various international fora has the added advantage to the president of raising the stakes on further Netanyahu criticism of an Iran deal to a level Bibi may not be willing to risk.
We may be hard upon a great moment of testing for American Jews. Are they going to fall for this? Are they going to allow themselves to be used as a wedge against Israel in hostile territory like the United Nations? Are they going to provide more ammunition to the president and his effort to still his critics only weeks before the United States might be announcing its acquiescence to the gravest existential threat the Jewish people have faced since the Holocaust?