The White House Will No Longer Attempt to Bypass or Ignore Netanyahu

February 13, 2013 12:30 pm 21 comments

Barack Obama in Israel in 2008.

There’s one very simple, very clear conclusion to be drawn from the sudden decision of President Obama to visit Israel, without waiting for Shimon Peres’ Presidential Conference in the summer, without there being any fundamental progress in the “peace process” to support – Netanyahu has won.

For almost four years, the strategy of the White House vis-à-vis Israel was built around the assumption that Benjamin Netanyahu is an unfortunate aberration, a sad and annoying throwback to the past that was obviated by the ascension of Obama. At various points, the prevailing opinion among Obama’s inner circle was that the Israeli Premier must be pushed, marginalized or replaced. Despite the series of setbacks along the road (including the record drop in the American President’s popularity in Israel), and the negative reaction of the American public to the perceived slighting of the trusted ally in an attempt to score points with the “Arab street,” the underlying expectation never changed. No matter what the polls told, Israelis were supposed to follow the American cue and to get rid of the leader who failed to appease the newly reelected President.

To be fair, those expectations were not baseless. After all, how hard should it have been for Netanyahu’s opponents to prevail when they had an entire propaganda machine (also known as Israeli press) on their side? With exception of “Israel Ha-Yom” (where the defense of Netanyahu never matched the frenzy of attacks on him elsewhere), the Israeli chattering classes, leaded by the media empire of Yedioth Ahronoth, made the defeat of Netanyahu a priority and pursued it single-mindedly. During the electoral campaign, any politician suspected of possible cooperation with Netanyahu was relentlessly attacked. Those attacks caused Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch to change strategy mid-campaign and declare that under no circumstances will she support Netanyahu as a Prime Minister and join his coalition.

What happened next was instructive. The centrist voters, who up to that point considered voting for Labor as an option, abandoned Yachimovitch in droves for a leader who never had any qualms about joining forces with Netanyahu – Yair Lapid. Not just Labor – Tzipi Livni, who just a few years ago was considered in Washington to be a desirable replacement for either Netanyahu or his erstwhile Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, tried to replicate her “Tzipi or Bibi” campaign of 2009, betted heavily on the “peace process,” and lost dramatically. Out of 12 mandates that she was expected to win on the day of her return to politics, she lost half at the polls.

If having the American President and the local press in their camp wasn’t enough, Netanyahu’s foes were ably assisted… by Netanyahu himself. The united list of Likud Beitenu campaigned poorly, failing to present a positive vision for the future until it was too late, vacillating between attacks on its past and future partners, trying simultaneously to outbid Naftali Bennet on the Right and denounce him as a dangerous extremist, and missing the threat of Lapid and his centrist appeal altogether. As unbelievable as it may sound to an American reader, who is accustomed to Netanyahu’s masterful performances in English, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric in Hebrew frequently failed to connect, conveying a feeling of insincerity and condescension. The lack of credible opposition on the Left put the Likud rank-and-file activists to sleep, spreading the feeling that the elections had already been won. The welcome assist from Obama (via Jeffrey Goldberg) came too late.

The Israeli political system, which encourages pluralism and hampers any attempts at uniformity, worked against Netanyahu and Liberman. Seeing the numbers, many right-wing voters who didn’t like the personal union between the leaders either stayed home or drifted to other parties, including those who stood little chance of winning. At the elections, a record number of Right wing and religious votes were lost in support of four lists which failed to cross the electoral threshold. Believing that Netanyahu’s reelection was guaranteed, some of Likud’s supporters voted with their wallets and backed Lapid, whose promises to protect the middle class were shrewdly coupled with manifest friendliness to the worldview of the Right. Finally, for many voters, Netanyahu’s request for voters to grant more power to the united list sounded suspiciously like Ariel Sharon’s exactly ten years ago. Then, Sharon triumphed with 38 mandates, swallowed two more of Sharansky’s “Yisrael B’Aliya” party – and went on to destroy the Jewish presence in Gaza Strip and four settlements in Northern Samaria. Voters wanted Netanyahu to remain Prime Minister, because they supported his outlook and valued his expertise, but they did not trust him or love him sufficiently enough to allow him to rule unrestrained.

In the final count, the Right-religious core of support for Netanyahu has shrank from 65 mandates to 61. Yet, when asked to recommend a candidate for Premiership to the President of Israel, 82 deputies of the new Knesset named Netanyahu. That is the real measure of the Prime Minister’s triumph – for the first time, he stands in the middle of a wide consensus of Right and Center, religious and secular. He is without peer; there is no alternative. Far from being “weakened,” Netanyahu today is more indispensable than ever.

Obama’s decision to visit Israel acknowledges this new reality. There will be no more attempts to bypass Netanyahu or to ignore him. Carrying on his back a Defense Secretary with a pronounced “Jewish problem” and a Secretary of State who in talks with various Arab potentates has already given half of Israel away, Obama can’t realistically expect to wrestle the Israeli public from its reelected leader on his home turf. If there’s no point in waiting for a breakthrough, best to get the unpleasant experience of paying Netanyahu a visit over with as soon as possible. At least, after that Obama won’t be badgered by the likes of J Street, who still believe that with a burst of verbiage on Israeli soil the President will convert the Israelis to the peace faith.

If Obama, as reported, intends to use his visit to press for a moratorium on an Israeli strike against Iran, his task will be no less arduous. Netanyahu would be perfectly happy to rely on Washington if he could trust Obama’s reassurances with regard to Iranian nuclear ambitions. Yet the diminishing American presence in the Gulf and the appointment of Chuck Hagel speak stronger than any words. If Obama is really considering a military option against Iran, it has never been more impressively concealed, and without a credible military option there won’t be any diplomatic progress – unless the West is prepared to allow Iran a “bomb-in-the-basement” status, which is anathema to Israel and to Iran’s Arab neighbors.

Not for nothing, the reports conveyed a subtle hint of blackmail. Since the belief that the most painful spot for a Jew is his pocket, has never really disappeared in Europe, the Europeans seek to enable Obama to threaten Netanyahu with sanctions if he remains uncooperative on Iran and “peace” with Palestinians. Some of the ideas reported, such as a renewal of visa demands for Israelis wishing to enter the EU, are guaranteed to destroy whatever influence Europe still possess and as such, are clearly intended to serve as a ruse – if Netanyahu plays along, Obama will be able to calm the anti-Israeli sentiments in Paris, London and Brussels.

On the Palestinian front, it is worth remembering that the “return to direct negotiations without preconditions” was the Israeli demand all along. If during his visit Obama succeeds in strong-arming Mahmoud Abbas into renewed negotiations, that will be a major win for Netanyahu, who’ll be able to satisfy Lapid’s ritualistic demand for “restarting the peace process” at almost zero cost, probably by refraining from building in E1 and other sensitive areas. To undo the damage he’s done to Palestinian-Israeli dialog during his first term will be enough for Obama – after all, it was his demands – to freeze settlements, to end negotiations by September 2011 and to accept the “1967 borders” as a basis for territorial compromise – that drove Palestinians up the tree. In the current atmosphere of complete mistrust due to Abbas’ unilateral actions in the UN and his newfound love for Hamas and Iran, the very act of getting Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other like it’s 2008 will be a huge success – one which is not guaranteed to happen.

21 Comments

  • The basic problem between the Palestinians and Israel is that the best deal they can get today — a withdrawal to the 67 lines, division of Jerusalem, etc. — is what they could have had in 1967 or even 1949. That means unambiguously that “Palestinian suffering” has been caused exclusively by the poor choices made by their leaders.

    Getting to a settlement today thus requires that Palestinian leaders acknowledge responsibility for all the terrible things that have happened to their people for 45-63 years, hardly the sort of admission that will win the confidence of their people.

    If Obama has any hope of getting the “peace process” started again, he will point this out during his visit and provide Palestinian leaders with a scapegoat, such as, perhaps, Haj Amin al-Husseini or Yasser Arafat. Both are already conveniently dead, and thus face no meaningful retribution.

    Obama lacks the integrity to do so, so the probability that he will do so is essentially nil. The result is the visit will simply elevate the sense of frustration on both sides, but enable Obama to walk away from the mess he has made.

  • Obama is coming to Israel as the “bulding inspector”. He is going to tell the Jews when and where to build their houses !

  • elliot j. stamler

    Again these last-stander ZOA conservative Republican super-Jews are insulting and vilifying the president. You people who simply refuse to swallow the FACT that out of 10 American Jews, 7 voted for Obama (and that’s right-almost none of us are Orthodox so suck on that fact too) like your Tea Party/Religious Right nutcase allies, are so extreme, so unreasonable, so nasty, that you are going to get nowhere fast. I agree that the president’s middle east policy was wrong and I despise the verminous nazi Arabs but to accuse the president of being an enemy of Israel and/or a covert anti-semite is the kind of Republican- Pamela Geller type dreck that makes me have utter contempt for you.

    • Not all of us who defend Isdrel are Orthodox. And some of us are registred Democrats. But one thing’s for sure we see right through Obama’s desire to have Hegel the anti sdmite as his defense minister. This way good iole Chuck can do what he wants. —-recognize Iran and her bomb and do away with pesky Israel and thr Jews and their lobby.

    • What do you mean by “you people”? That’s a horrible expression.

      As for those you claim voted Obama into office, might these people be the descendants of those misled individuals who voted for Hitler?

  • Obama is sly and crafty with the words of a snake. He cannot be trusted in anything he says. America is going down the drain under his lack of stewardship and he will take Israel down too if he can. His STate of the Union showed clearly that less than half of America trust and believe anything he says. How did this snake get elected again?

  • Are you being unfair to Obama, who in 2009, secretly gave Israel 90 bunker buster bombs that Israel was denied by Bush for years. This, according to a secret cable published by Wikileaks.

  • “The TWO Nakbas” should be our only inernational theme and conducted only before the UN. There’s much more room for negotiation for both sides there while there is simply none in these frustrating Abbas/Israel coffee klatches. Israel foolishly presumes that the refugee Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) is not as potent an issue as that of the Palestinians. BIG MISTAKE. The two issues are of a piece, slippery for some to grasp, but could help
    free Israel from the growing world isolation quickly. We jjust need a propaganda campaign like that of the Pals.
    Prosor and Ayalon just started it. The Arab League and Palestine have been doing it for 64 years. Hard to match.

  • Obama is a wolf in sheeps clothing! Yes! He cannot be trusted. He is not a friend of Israel! :(

  • We Americans are fully in support of Bibi and will always be so. O is destroying our country little by little under the populace noses. He will put on a good show, but behind the scenes he is the enemy of Israel. He is not to be trusted under any circumstances.

    • Agree 100%, but too many American liberals, Jews, too, are way behind the curve in seeing this reality. Very frustrating.

  • obama is not to be trusted especially in Israel

  • “return to direct negotiations without preconditions”
    no reason for Abbas not to talk now Bibi has dropped preconditions for the Palestinians to cease “violence” and accept Israel’s claim to statehood in advance.

  • Good article, but a little optimistic.
    It does not take into consideration how much Obama is a megalomaniac.
    Obama is reported to have declined to speak to the Knesset and has ordered instead a 1000 seats venue, the Nation Quarters in Jerusalem for his speech.
    In this era of TV and internet, the size of the live audience is meaningless.
    However, Obama’s choice is significant because it intends to show to the Israelis that he despises their state and elected institutions, that he speaks over the heads of their elected representatives to “the people”, a.k.a. the leftist minority who adulates him.
    The Obama visit will be failure and an embarrassment for the US.

    • Hope so!

    • Never forget that obamanation is completely untruthful and not to be trusted in any situation, and that includes Israel. If this is not obvious by now, one has to be living on anothe planet. I have never been exposed to such a treacherous and treasonous individual in my 70 plus years. IF America is to survive, it will be in spite of the obamanation of America.

    • Jordan Cherkinsky

      I’m in agreement with you on this!!

    • Actually, it’s probably wise that Obama not speak before the Knesset. I recall the reaction after a Congressman said “You lie” after a statement Obama made during an earlier State of the Union speech. Given the uninhibited nature of Knesset members, one can only imagine what they’d say if unrestrained with Obama on the dais. The last thing Israel needs is a thin-skinned Obama walking away feeling insulted.

      • Bonnie Loranger

        It would be good for him to face the members of the Knesset. He needs to be told what a liar and a joker he is.

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