Enabled by Obama, Netanyahu Attempts to Hold Back the Tide of History

The same day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s received his “wildly receptive” welcome from the U.S. Congress Financial Times Associate Editor Philip Stephens wrote that “Elsewhere, Britain has been frustrated by Washington’s refusal to back publication by the international community of the essential parameters of an Israeli-Palestine peace agreement.” Translation: It is the U.S. that is preventing the major world powers from expressing the international consensus on the way forward in “peace process.” Stephens continued, “The president’s willingness to offend Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s obdurate prime minister, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress in the region.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has already said it might support the Palestinians when they go before the United Nations, as expected in September, and ask for a resolution affirming Palestinian statehood in the Israeli occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. If you rely on the major U.S. media you would never sense it but what Obama likely heard in Europe last week is that the rest of the world is even more certain than the British to back the UN move. Evidently in his meeting with European leaders, Obama tried to talk the others out of supporting Palestinian statehood when the matter comes up for a vote in the UN.

“The march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations — will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative,” Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a group that has become little more than a lobbying mechanism supporting the policies of Netanyahu’s governing rightwing coalition. “So in advance of a five-day trip to Europe, in which the Middle East will be a topic of acute interest, I chose to speak about what peace will require.”

President Obama didn’t exactly launch any “initiative” and his endorsement of a Middle East settlement based on the 1967 Armistice borders wasn’t nearly as bold as it is being portrayed. It is the consensus position of the vast overwhelming majority of the people and governments of the world. It has been for a long time, and everybody knows it.

The effect of the media reporting on Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S., his talk with Obama, his rapturous reception at the annual AIPAC powwow and his over the top reception by the U.S. Congress has created a delusion here in the U.S. The verbal sparring between the two leaders, the haughty lecturing tone of Netanyahu’s response to the President, and the 28 or so standing ovations the Congress gave to him are only part of the story and have to be viewed in the context of the opinion of the rest of the world. It doesn’t even adequately reflect the views of the members of Congress. Their repeated standing ovations are more a testimony to the political power of the Israeli lobby than to their private convictions. Even some of Israel’s most adamant supporters amongst them are gravely concerned over Israel’s growing international isolation.

The cable news commentators that referred to the Israeli leader’s seeming political conquest of official Washington as “political theater” got it right: members of Congress, some of whom are otherwise knowledgeable and reasonable people, falling all over themselves to applaud what most of the rest of the world – including our most trusted allies—reject.

The dynamic on display this week in Washington between the two leaders has actually left the Palestinian leadership little choice but to appeal to the international community.

“The world will blame Israel as the main culprit if violence escalates again should the Palestinians unilaterally declare their independence this autumn,” said The Financial Times Deutschland in Germany. “Whether this blame would be correct or not, a government leader must act in such a situation. The Arab revolutions have made the situation even more urgent and increased the Palestinians’ impatience.

“But even before his speech yesterday, Netanyahu willfully squandered this chance … despite his promises and declarations; he apparently wanted to play the blocker and the hardliner. And it served him well — at least domestically.”

“But it’s a catastrophe for Israel’s foreign policy,” said the paper. “Sure, Netanyahu was applauded in Congress, and he thanked Obama repeatedly for his support of Israel. But the audience for his speech and visit weren’t just US politicians, who would stand by him anyhow. Instead of an Israeli vision of a peaceful Middle East, once again only the memory of Netanyahu’s many refusals will remain in the mind of the global audience.”

All hands appear to be on deck to try and head off a UN resolution. “Having the U.N. General Assembly pass a resolution recognizing an independent Palestinian state will only rally Israelis around Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, giving him another excuse not to talk,” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman May 25. That’s just silly talk. Bibi doesn’t need another rationale for intransigence. He opposes any settlement based on any borderlines that doesn’t ratify the colonial conquest of Palestinian land.

That a new UN resolution will not produce a Palestinian state is so obvious that it’s curious that Obama bothered to say so, but as Retired Brigadier General Michael Herzog, a veteran Israeli negotiator has noted, “it is likely to isolate Israel and escalate Israeli-Palestinian tensions.”

While in Europe Obama was no doubt told again what he already knew: that the European Union fully backs the position that will be laid out in a General Assembly resolution. The Congressional applause had hardly died down when the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, backed Obama’s stance.

“Netanyahu’s rejection of peace based on the 1967 borders is self-important and arrogant…especially given that Obama explicitly stated that a variation from the 1967 borders would be possible under a mutual land swap,” Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Spiegel last week. “Netanyahu is suppressing the political reality and betting on a stalemate instead. For the peace process, that is deadly.

“We need to make an attempt to draw Hamas into a democratic process and bring it on to the path of freedom — just as we succeeded in doing with Fatah during the 1990s. That would also include informal talks with Hamas.

“And that’s a position we Europeans are going to maintain,” continued Asselborn. “Still, you can’t just put conditions on the Palestinian side, as they’re not the only source of the violence. Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into a prison. There, 1.7 million people live in an area one-seventh the size of Luxembourg. To shut its borders and to only allow certain goods into the country and hardly any out — this is also a form of violence. In the West Bank, Israelis continue to build settlements on expropriated land. It is a constant provocation.”

One might think that it would shore up political support for the rightwing politician at home but that would be a mistake. “American Jews have been dragged over the past few days into the controversy between their government and Israel’s government, and that is neither to their benefit nor to the benefit of the State of Israel,” was the editorial comment of Haaretz, considered by some to be Israel’s most influential daily newspaper.

“Unlike the many American politicians who turn Jewish organizational conferences into election rallies, Obama did not make do with rousing declarations about America’s commitment to Israel’s security and to the unity of Jerusalem, said the newspaper. “Though he is already thinking about his upcoming presidential election campaign, Obama looked the Jewish community in the eye and told the truth.

“The refusal by Netanyahu and his political allies to recognize the 1967 borders as a starting point leads permanent-status negotiations into a dead end. From there, the road is short to violent confrontation with the Palestinians, diplomatic isolation and perhaps even economic sanctions,’ said Haaretz.

“The large Jewish peace camp in the United States must support the president and reject political activists who have turned Israel’s fate into a ball on America’s domestic political court. The time has come for the Jews of New York and Illinois to stand beside their worried brethren in Jerusalem and Sderot, who have welcomed Obama’s message and are hoping for it to become reality. Between loyalty to Obama’s way and loyalty to Netanyahu’s way, they must choose loyalty to the future of the State of Israel.”

Obama “knows that, given Netanyahu’s political constraints and his worldview, chances for productive negotiations with the Palestinians are practically zero,” says Carlo Strenger, Tel Aviv University philosopher and psychoanalyst and member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists. “He also knows that the Palestinians’ bid for recognition by the UN general assembly, where the US does not have veto power, is likely to receive more than two-thirds of the vote, probably including Britain and France.

“So Netanyahu is losing,” says Strenger. “But the real victims of his rightwing government’s disastrous policies are the people of Israel. The specter of Israel’s ever-growing isolation and increasing international pressure on it looms large. As Israeli prize-winning historian and political scientist Zeev Sternhell writes in Haaretz, ‘Israel is on the way to becoming a pariah state’.”

“The clear losers in Netanyahu’s shortsightedness, wrapped into grandiose verbal pyrotechnics, are the citizens of Israel. Once the dust of the media storm settles down, we will be faced with the stark truth: the specter of Israel’s ever-growing isolation and of increasing international pressure looms large. Once the Palestinians succeed in their bid for statehood, the Netanyahu government will be facing international criticism of its settlement policies unprecedented in force and intensity.

“The tragedy is that Israel’s growing isolation and the Palestinians’ unilateral move could be avoided. Instead of fighting Palestinians’ bid for recognition, Israel should support it.”

Fareed Zakaria wrote May 25 in the Washington Post: “The problem is that Netanyahu has never believed in land for peace. His strategy has been to put up obstacles, create confusion and wait it out. But one day there will be peace, along the lines that people have talked about for 20 years. And Netanyahu will be remembered only as a person before the person who made peace, a comma in history.

“It was a tactical triumph for the Israeli premier,’ said the Financial Times. “But it is Israeli citizens, not the US Congress, who will have to live with the consequences of a leader who will not make the compromises needed for peace with the Palestinians – and with an Arab world reinvigorated by the wave of revolution against tyrants Israel has come to rely on.”

“History has been in the making all over the southern bank of the Mediterranean, and it won’t skip the Palestinian territory,” commented the French newspaper Le Monde. Everywhere, the ‘Arab spring’ is bringing together people with the same demands for dignity, democracy and freedom, and there is no reason why it should not reach the Palestinians, too.’

On May 28, at Group of Eight summit in the French seaside resort of Deauville, leaders of world’s richest countries gave “strong support” to President Barack Obama’s stance on pre-1967 borders. In a draft statement at the G8 summit in they urged Israelis and Palestinians “to return to substantive talks with a view to concluding a framework agreement on all final status issues.

“To that effect, we express our strong support for the vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace outlined by President Obama on May 19, 2011.”

On the same day, over a dozen Israeli intellectuals and public figures sent a letter to European governments urging them to ”officially recognize a Palestinian State,” noting that “the peace process has reached its end,”

The letter, initiated by Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, said in part, “Peace has fallen hostage to the peace process. As Israeli citizens, we announce that if and when the Palestinian people declare independence of a sovereign state that will exist next to Israel in peace and security, we will support such the announcement of the Palestinian State with borders based on the 1967 lines, with needed land swaps on a 1:1 basis.”

The letter was signed by former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, former Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel, and former Ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch, Nobel laureate Professor Daniel Kahneman, and Israel Prize Winner Professor Avishai Margalit.

“We urge the countries of the world to declare their willingness to recognize a sovereign Palestinian State according to these principles,” the letter read, adding “the Palestinian appeal to the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian State does not harm the Israeli interest and is not at odds with the peace process.”

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.