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Netanyahu and Obama: Name-Calling and its Discontents

Recent name-calling notwithstanding, US-Israel relations are not at a point of crisis, but could be in the near future.

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The obsession in politics and diplomacy with decorum–largely a relic from the past–can easily distract people from the realities of the present. Case in point, the uproar over Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest article in the Atlantic, the headline of which, The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here, would seem important enough to warrant more attention than it has gotten so far.

Instead, the whisper of an unnamed “senior Obama administration official,” who called Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” has occupied headlines. And instead of taking a strong, or even a weak stance on Netanyahu’s repeated declarations about expanding settlement activity everywhere in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the White House has only tried to distance itself from the remark, describing it as “unauthorized” and “inappropriate.”

As Goldberg himself pointed out, the fact that Bibi is a chickenshit is not entirely a bad thing. Whatever else it does, it also makes him quite afraid to back up his rhetoric with action. Even in Gaza this summer, the ongoing slaughter seemed, from Netanyahu’s point of view, to be something that spiraled much further out of control than he had intended. Indeed, his constant shifting of the mission’s goal posts indicated the lack of any sort of planning beforehand. Political pressures kept driving him on, as they do with most of his actions. But at least the “chickenshit” was never going to attack Iran despite his bellicosity, as the United States seems to finally understand.

Being less of a leader and more of a leaf blowing in the political wind is an apt description of Netanyahu, and it is strongly suggested in Goldberg’s piece. But it also applies to the Obama administration, which has repeatedly refused to use the tools it has at its disposal to create real pressure on Israel to, at the very least, desist from its actions that are obviously intended to destroy any possibility of a two-state solution. So, chickenshit cuts both ways.

Maybe Goldberg intended the chickenshit comment to overshadow the rest of his point, maybe he didn’t. But the assertion that we are in a period of crisis for US-Israel relations is a very important one. The question is: are we?

The simple answer is no, but Goldberg is not wrong in suggesting that such a crisis could occur in the near future. One can understand why Goldberg focuses so much on personal clashes. Never in the history of Israel has there been a government that so arrogantly insulted the United States so frequently. Whether it’s Netanyahu, Finance Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, or some other member of the Knesset, anti-American statements have risen to unprecedented levels.

For their part, US officials have been getting just the tiniest bit harsher in their criticism of Israel, while Israeli officials escalate their anti-US rhetoric. And then there’s the endless stories about how much Obama and Netanyahu dislike each other, with Goldberg’s in the lead. The problem, of course, as it is presented in this narrative of interpersonal conflict, is bad communication, or mismatched personalities.

In reality, none of this is really about Bibi and Barack disliking each other. They do, but that is beside the point. It is the direction that Israel has decided to go in that is the problem.

Let’s start off by noting that the degree of the “crisis” is being massively overblown. There is a much bigger problem in Europe for Bibi than there is in the United States. The Europeans are actually threatening to take some action, not just calling Bibi names in whispers to reporters. Sweden’s recognition of Palestine as a state is just a first step in a series of actions that might be on the horizon from Europe, where Israel conducts the biggest share of its trade. When the United States gets to that point, as it has on occasion in the ever more distant past, then we can start wondering if there is a crisis in relations that might cause some small shift in the status quo.

The “chickenshit” epithet can apply to Obama just as much as it can to Netanyahu. He is a president with a non-confrontational style trying to govern with what is, arguably, the most defiant and combative Congress any president has ever had to deal with. And he is dealing with an Israeli government that is pursuing a very different strategy than its predecessors. The Israel of today no longer cares about the majority of the Jewish community in the United States. This Israel, correctly, determined that its ultimate desire to completely thwart a two-state solution and maintain an apartheid system over the Palestinians would never be acceptable to most American Jews. But most US Jews weren’t the ones providing the political power and, more importantly, the funding for congressional campaigns and for settlements in the West Bank.

The Jews that do provide these things, as well as the Christians, are right-wingers, either in their general politics or at least on Middle East policy (including policy toward the entire Arab world, Iran and Turkey). They are now the only ones Israel cares about. More liberal-minded devotees are not, at this stage, providing that much support for Israel, either economically or financially. Those of them who do provide this support will continue to check their otherwise liberal values at the Israeli door. The rest are not, in the estimate of the Netanyahu government, worth the compromises that must be made to garner their support.

In this circumstance, Israel has a freer hand in its actions. While Netanyahu announces more and more building plans in East Jerusalem and other sensitive parts of the Occupied Territories, Republicans, who stand a good chance of controlling both houses of Congress, are not criticizing Israeli actions in the slightest. Instead, as one would expect, they are attacking Obama for his insufficient support of Israel.

In this context, Israeli journalist Roi Ben-Yishai, one of Israel’s best, reported on Israel’s “new approach” to the Palestinians. It holds few surprises. Israel is not intending to return to talks, correctly believing they will be futile, and therefore would only make things worse. Israel’s assessment will remain correct until its own positions can be moderated by pressure like that of the Palestinians over the years.

The plan is then to have the quiescent Palestinian Authority (PA) assume control over Gaza and reinforce its control on the West Bank. In other words, marginalize Hamas throughout the Palestinian body politic. Under those circumstances, Israel would end the siege of Gaza and ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank as well. The idea is that the Palestinians can then build a functional economy, which Israel believes will cause the Palestinian people to oppose actions that could draw Israeli military reprisals. I rather doubt that would be the result, but right now, the delays in Palestinian international action imply that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is cooperating with Israel and Egypt on this effort, probably in the hope that this strategy would eliminate Hamas as a political rival.

This seems like another doomed plan, one that harkens back to old Israeli beliefs that Palestinian nationalism will eventually just go away. But we must recognize that this is happening with the silent approval of the United States. Egypt, in particular, would not work with Israel on such a plan if it believed that the United States would object. More to the point, the plan is also intended to provide the US with what it wants most: Palestinian silence. What American policy has always represented is the complete lack of importance placed on the welfare of the Palestinians, or anyone else (including ordinary Israelis) in the region, for that matter. The entire issue is only relevant insofar as it affects more “important” US concerns.

So, the Obama administration will likely allow Israel to proceed with its plans, even if it doesn’t believe those plans are likely to succeed. This is evident in the lack of material response to Israel’s direct challenge to the international consensus on a two-state solution.

The name-calling highlighted by Goldberg merely reflects these disagreements and the fact that the increasingly populist and rightward tilt not only in the Israeli government but also in its population leads to verbose criticism of US officials, up to and including the president. Responses to such insults can be countered by Israel’s power in Congress in a way that more fundamental policy differences cannot. That frustrates some American officials, but it doesn’t provoke any material US response.

If Congress persists in pressuring the administration on its Iran policy, a pressure which most understand as directed by Jerusalem, Obama may well respond through the Palestinian issue. In that case, we might see a more direct counter to Israeli policies, such as a Security Council resolution condemning the settlements or even an “Obama Plan” basing a two-state solution on the 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem. That would be a turn of events not seen in decades, but Israel has also never worked so hard to undermine US goals on foreign policy matters as it has on Iran.

But make no mistake, if the Palestinians get any respite from the Obama administration it will be because of Israel’s meddling through Congress on the Iran issue. It will not be due to any Palestinian action, much less on the insulting attitude of Israeli officials or the personal dislike between the current Israeli leader and the president of the United States. It is, ultimately, all about policy priorities, not personalities.

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