The Risky Provocations of Mr. Netanyahu

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
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There really must be some explanation for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s blatant snubbing of President Obama in the days since their meeting in Washington. After all, we have been told for years that Netanyahu, perhaps even more than some of his colleagues, is deeply sensitive to the importance of America’s support of Israel. Yet, since the May 18 meeting, Netanyahu seems to have gone out of his way to distance himself from what he knows to be the views not only of America’s new president but also of the American foreign policy establishment. He has specifically rejected an end to both the “natural growth” of existing settlements and to Jewish construction in Jerusalem. He has pointedly refused to endorse a two-state solution to Israel’s continuing conflict with the Palestinians. He has apparently concluded that he can satisfy America’s opposition to the West Bank settlement program by nodding his agreement to Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s umpteenth announcement that he is prepared to remove as many as two dozen illegal settlements by force, if need be. He has repeated his readiness to negotiate with Syria “without preconditions,” meaning without the sine qua non of any agreement, Israel’s stated readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Similarly, he describes himself as eager to resume negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas, this, too, without precondition. (Or maybe not: In April, he demanded that any entity with which Israel negotiates must first acknowledge Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Now that seems to have been at least temporarily set aside.) But the negotiations will be about security, about economic development, about the development of Palestinian political and governmental institutions – not about borders and boundaries, not about final status issues. In each of these respects, he is flouting America’s stated preferences.

In sum, Netanyahu is behaving essentially as if George W. Bush were still president of the United States and as if the status quo were indefinitely sustainable.

But Bush is no longer president, and Barack Obama is convinced that serious progress on the Israel-Palestine peace front is critical to calming down the volatile Middle East, even to managing the Iran problem.

Let’s be entirely clear: Netanyahu is the duly elected leader of a sovereign state, a state fully entitled to define its own policies without reference to the good opinion much less the approval of others. That’s what sovereignty means. But let’s not be naïve: Israel is not nearly as independent as it might like to be. Indeed, no nation is entirely independent, not in these globalized days, and Israel, though astonishingly accomplished in very many ways, is very far from autonomous. It needs the active political, financial and security support of the United States. It is not a vassal state, but neither is it master of its own destiny.

So, again, what can account for Netanyahu’s provocations?

There is only one plausible explanation: Netanyahu thinks he can outsmart Obama. Not, mind you, that he is smarter than Obama, but that he can play him, just as most of Netanyahu’s predecessors have done with previous occupants of the Oval Office.

Will America really go to the mat with Israel over the question of whether it is right to build additional housing so that grown children can live near their parents? Will the president risk the fury of the American Jewish community and of a consequently aroused Congress in order to fiddle with the contours of Jerusalem, in order to placate the very people who smirched the city’s sanctity back when they controlled its holy places, from 1948 to 1967? The president will fume, the secretary of state will grouse, the commentariate will mutter, but in the end, Israel will prevail.

I sometimes fear there’s a genetically inbred survival characteristic of the Jews that predisposes us to try to beat the system, to get away with things, a characteristic that came in very handy for all those many centuries during which the nerve and cleverness to beat the system enabled survival, but that has now become a dysfunctional anachronism.

Be that as it may, Netanyahu’s stance will likely turn out to be a serious miscalculation of Obama’s intentions and abilities. Obama has no intention of endangering Israel, but when it comes to outsmarting a would-be outsmarter, he is not exactly a beginner. The network that connects Israel and America is so thickly wired that there are many ways that America can pressure Israel without endangering it. And Obama seems, so far, the sort of person who, once engaged — which he surely is — will not easily let go, flit onto some other tempting challenge.

For sure, the Palestinians are not ready for peace. Neither are the Israelis. But Jordan and Syria and Saudi Arabia and Egypt may well be, and the United States, after eight years of useless dabbling, now newly alive, newly ambitious, newly strategic in its thinking, seems alert to the opportunity and responsibility that its history and its power have shaped.

Netanyahu would do well to listen to the urgent message he’s been receiving from Jewish members of Congress and from Jewish communal leaders: understand that the settlement issue will no longer be swept under the rug. The due date for the costs of the delusional escapade that has wrenched Israel so radically off course is at hand.

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