Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chastising Netanyahu: Fury or cold calculation?

Characterizing the Obama administration's reaction to Netanyahu's late-election comments denigrating Arab voters and promising to prevent formation of a Palestinian state, the New York Times' Jodi Rudoren and Julie Davis echo a comment them in asserting
the White House issued a new signal that it remained furious with Mr. Netanyahu for campaign comments that also appeared to close the door on a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.
and
there was no sign of any softening from the administration over its anger with Mr. Netanyahu over his comments about the Palestinian question.
Perhaps Obama, Kerry et al really were personally incensed by Netanyahu's comments. I've read at least one account quoting anonymous sources who claimed they were. Perhaps they find it useful to project "fury."  But I see the reaction more as seizing an opportunity than as an expression of pique.

Israelis have always known that Netanyahu has no interest in co-creating a Palestinian state. Over the decades, as in the last two weeks, he has repeatedly boasted about his effective measures to undercut Oslo, to strategically expand and cement Israel's presence on the West Bank in such a way as to make a Palestinian state untenable. Notwithstanding Israeli spin, ventriloquized by credulous reporters like Roger Cohen, Netanyahu's government plainly undercut the peace talks that collapsed last spring -- as U.S. envoy Martin Indyk, ex of AIPAC, acknowledged. Yet the Israel lobby has kept this administration locked into a policy of shielding Israel from international condemnation and sanction for its settlement or international action to form a Palestinian state on the now-threadbare grounds that Israel is committed to a two-state solution and that peace can only come through direct negotiation between the two parties.

When Netanyahu retracted his nominal commitment to a two-state solution the administration pounced. The message has been unified and precisely calibrated: 1) since the Israeli commitment to negotiating a Palestinian state has been openly retracted, the U.S. will have to rethink its own policy; 2) the administration Netanyahu forms can only forestall new forms of U.S. pressure, probably by means of a U.N. resolution, by deeds, not by words; and  3) abandonment of a two-state solution (and casting Arab voters as an internal enemy) undercuts the basis of U.S. support for Israel.

That last point has to be offset with the old assurances that military aid and cooperation will not cease (or be scaled back) and that the U.S.-Israel bond is unbreakable. But as I noted a few days ago, the administration's first response to Netanyahu's late election comments name-checked those bonds:
“The United States and this administration is deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens," Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One. "It undermines the values and Democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.”
Now, as Netanyahu does his apology tour, the message is that words alone don't count (back to the Times article here):
We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made,” Mr. McDonough said. He told a crowd of 3,000 at the J Street meeting that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank “must end.”
McDonough got some welcome reinforcement from James Baker,who as Bush Sr.'s Secretary of State was stymied in attempting to pressure Israel to reduce settlement activity:
In another speech to the same group Monday evening, James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, sharply criticized Mr. Netanyahu for not living up to his past promises to work for peace. “His actions have not matched his rhetoric,” he said.
Obama struck the same note in his Huffington Post interview published last Saturday, putting a twist on what first seemed a bit of diplomat-speak:
we take him at his word when he said that it wouldn't happen during his prime ministership, and so that's why we've got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don't see a chaotic situation in the region
We take him at his prior word, that is -- discounting the walk-back that had already commenced when Obama spoke here.

To scale back U.S. diplomatic protection of Israel at the U.N. even mildly -- that is, to change the terms of all-but-unconditional U.S. support for Israeli government policy -- Obama needed a massive provocation, an exposure of Israeli bad faith that not even U.S. Jewish leaders could deny. Fighting for his political life and going all-out to co-opt the Israeli right, Netanyahu gave it to him. I suspect Obama is grateful.

Update: Here and previously, I've noted that Obama's response to Netanyahu's comments about Arab voters cited an erosion of "bonds" between the U.S. and Israel, routinely alleged to be unbreakable or indissoluble. Today's WSJ report (by Adam Entous) that Israel spied on the negotiations with Iran and used the intelligence to try to influence members of Congress touches on the potential fraying of bonds --twice:
Obama administration officials, departing from their usual description of the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel, have voiced sharp criticism of Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer to describe how the relationship has changed.
And:
A senior official in the prime minister’s office said Monday: “These allegations are utterly false. The state of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States or Israel’s other allies. The false allegations are clearly intended to undermine the strong ties between the United States and Israel and the security and intelligence relationship we share.”
Keep hacking at those bonds, Bibi.

Update 2: At a press conference in Afghanistan today, Obama emphasized that the rift is a matter of policy, not personality, that Netanyahu gas exposed the bankruptcy of the U.S. relying on Israeli good faith in two-state negotiations, and that Bibi's attempt to put his no-two-state genie back into the bottle is not credible:
I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years,” Obama said. “Because up until this point, the premise has been both under Republican and Democratic administrations that as difficult as it was, as challenging as it was, the possibility of two states living side by side in peace and security could marginalize more extreme elements, bring together folks at the center and with some common sense and we could resolve what has been a vexing issue and one that is ultimately a threat to Israel as well. And that possibility seems very dim.”....

But Obama pointed out that Netanyahu’s efforts to clarify his comments set forward “a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created but of course the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet any time soon.”

“I think the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time,” he said. “That may trigger then reactions by the Palestinians that in turn elicit counter reactions by the Israelis and that could end up leading to a downward spiral of relations that would be dangerous for everybody, and bad for everybody.”...

During his press conference, Obama chided journalists for framing the growing rift between his administration and Netanyahu as a personal spat, noting that he has a “very business-like” relationship with the Israeli leader. “We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israeli security, Palestinian aspirations, regional stability…Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach, so this can’t be reduced to a matter of let’s hold hands and sing ‘kumbaya’.”
Questions, anyone?

Next post:  Israelis read Obama right. Well, half-right

Related:
On U.S. support for Israel, Obama is turning the battleship a few degrees
Administration rebuke to Netanyahu name-checks those 'indissoluble bonds'




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