As Bibi Slouches Toward September

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 25, 2011, issue of June 03, 2011.
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Benjamin Netanyahu had ample reason to congratulate himself on a job well done as he headed home from his five-day visit to Washington, D.C. He received thunderous hero’s welcomes from Congress and the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which greeted him with its biggest-ever display of muscle. All this will serve him well at home. True, he had an ugly head-butt with President Obama at the White House, but this just reinforces his street cred, solidifies his coalition and dispirits his critics. Besides, while the run-in ruffled feathers in the administration, it was Obama who ended up running to AIPAC to clear the air.

For icing on the cake, he put Democrats on the defensive. They were forced to play catch-up, with Harry Reid publicly rebuking Obama and congressional Democrats leaping to their feet every few sentences throughout Bibi’s grant-no-quarter speech so as not to appear disloyal. AIPAC calls itself bipartisan, but you couldn’t miss the raucous crowd responses to the likes of Eric Cantor and Elliott Abrams. Democrats were well received, but Republicans, always Bibi’s home team, drew roars of approval. Things reached the point where the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, urged Republicans during a meeting with Netanyahu not to use Israel to score political points. (The Republican Jewish Coalition turned her down.)

All in all, it was a masterly show of strength by the Israeli prime minister. He demonstrated that he knows how to stand firm in the face of the fierce pressures he faces at home and abroad for some sort of diplomatic initiative. He wants the other side to do the conceding, and he’s willing to wait as long as it takes.

Now when the roof falls in on Israel in September, he can be the tough guy who told them all to bring it on.

And make no mistake, the roof will fall in. The Palestinians will overwhelmingly win recognition as an independent state in the United Nations General Assembly. That won’t make them a UN member state, but it will increase their stature around the globe and allow them to make the argument that Israel is occupying a sovereign neighbor. Economic sanctions will increase. Trade, travel, investment, access to credit, even fuel and military spare parts — there are countless places where the pinch can and will be felt.

Will terrorism increase? Probably not. The Palestinians will be riding a wave of good will, and they won’t want to hurt their image, especially in Europe. Besides, they’ve discovered something much scarier: Mass marches by unarmed civilians on Israel’s border fences. That’s a nightmare scenario that Israel has no answer for. If you listen to the military strategists, all they come up with is preventing the marches by reaching agreements. But that brings us back to Bibi.

Mind you, the roof doesn’t have to fall in. There’s another possible scenario. It’s conceivable that Obama brought up the 1967 lines in hopes of wooing the Palestinians back to the table. Remember, they walked away when Netanyahu took office and announced that he wanted to negotiate without preconditions, by which he meant scrapping all the understandings reached in previous rounds. Netanyahu wants to start all over again from zero, and the Palestinians don’t buy it.

Obama tried to bring them back to the table in 2009 with an offer of a settlement freeze, but that didn’t work. All he obtained was a partial and temporary freeze, and by the time the Palestinians decided to settle for that, it was over. Perhaps Obama is now hoping they’ll accept an American offer to be the guarantor of the 1967 lines-with-swaps concept that was included in the Clinton, Taba and Olmert talks. Netanyahu, of course, won’t say the words “based-on-1967-with-swaps.” Perhaps a U.S. pledge, combined with the glimmers of flexibility Netanyahu is showing, can get talks going before the General Assembly convenes.

If that’s the plan, it’s a clever one. Unfortunately, it would take a lot of hard work and shoe-leather to explain it to the Palestinians and get them on board, and there’s no sign that that’s in the cards. Reports from inside the administration are that since George Mitchell quit as special negotiator there is nobody left to do the hard work and no visible preparation underway to set such a machine in motion.

That brings us back to September. That’s when the General Assembly votes on Palestinian statehood, with Israel and America likely the sole “no” votes. The assembly vote sends the issue to the Security Council, where it is stopped by an American veto, to the annoyance of the Arabs and our European allies. From there the Palestinians, newly emboldened, take their fight to the World Court, the International Criminal Court and on to European credit markets, universities, unions. Ten thousand Gaza Palestinians march unarmed toward the Israeli border fence and trample it down, Israeli troops open fire and the Security Council meets in emergency session.

American officials are scrambling to put out fires everywhere, creating tensions with our allies that in turn divide the State Department and the CIA, spilling out into the punditocracy and the general media. Why, Americans ask, is the United States caught up yet again in squabbles with the rest of the world? Cue the scenes from AIPAC with its 10,000 delegates standing and cheering for Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by a panel of guest experts shaking their heads as they gingerly discuss the Israel lobby and the Jewish vote.

Fantasy? No — it’s already begun. So the next time somebody tells you that the Israelis are the only ones whose future is on the line, think twice.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com


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