Disciplining Benjamin Netanyahu

Anti-Netanyahu mural. France, 2012.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” goes the saying.  Enter Benjamin Netanyahu. It looks like Bibi is making the same mistake today that he made in his first go-round as Israel’s leader.

Netanyahu was first elected as Israel’s Prime Minister in 1996, in a close race against Shimon Peres, who was then with the Labor Party, and had succeeded Yitzhak Rabin as its head. It was, in fact, Hamas who elected Bibi. A wave of suicide bombings by the group was aimed at the Oslo Accords, and intended to ensure that Labor lost power.

Bibi assumed office, but presided, as he does today, over a parliament where the party which held the most seats was his opposition. He held an unstable coalition together for three years, but like the previous Likud Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, was undone by his inability to get along with the President of the United States, when his government crumbled in 1999. Shamir was handily defeated by none other than Israel’s current Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak.

A signature moment in Netanyahu’s relationship with the US President at the time, Bill Clinton, came during the Monica Lewinsky Scandal, which ultimately led to Clinton becoming the second US president to ever be impeached. Bibi had already been cultivating deep relationships with neoconservatives in the United States, and his reluctance to abide by Israel’s commitments in the Oslo Accords created even more friction with Clinton.  Israeli public unease over his inability to get along with the US made him particularly vulnerable to a series of financial scandals which eventually led to his downfall. Moderate and left-wing groups would not help prop up his government after radical right wing and religious groups left it in the wake of Netanyahu acquiescing to US demands, and agreeing to a phased withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.

This time around,  Bibi has made no secret of his disdain for Barack Obama. His animus has been a constant. Nor, in fairness, has Obama shown any great love for his Israeli counterpart. The tense relationship played out through Netanyahu’s insistence on negotiations with the Palestinians “without preconditions,” which meant starting from scratch, and scrapping any progress the Palestinians had made with previous Israeli governments. Let’s not forget Obama’s call for a settlement freeze, and Bibi’s refusal to enact any kind of meaningful one.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has seriously upped the ante. His open embrace of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney made it very clear which party he was endorsing in the race for the White House. Bibi was clearly broadcasting not only a campaign message for Romney – “Look, the Prime Minister of Israel wants me in the Oval Office, so despite what you saw on my recent trip around the globe, I really do know foreign affairs” – but also to the Jewish and Christian radical zealots who back the most insane and inhumane Israeli policies with their wallets.

Such blatant interference with US politics is unprecedented and unwelcome by the Israeli public. At one time, the US Jewish community would have seen it as unseemly, potentially something that could promote anti-Semitism. However, the major Jewish institutions no longer care about the appearance of being concerned about “Israel First” and only care about anti-Semitism, when they can cynically exploit the issue to Israel’s benefit, or for their own fundraising.

But it didn’t stop there. Apparently being Prime Minister of Israel is not enough for Bibi; he wants also to run the United States, or at least make its military decisions for it. It is, of course, perfectly reasonable for an ally to lobby or try to make a case for its superpower patron to take an action it deems vital to its national security. It’s quite another to try to coerce, manipulate and blackmail to push that superpower into a military conflict that is very much against its own interests.

Yet, as no less a figure than the prominent neoconservative, Michael Ledeen tells us that is precisely what Israel was trying to do.  However, even Ledeen’s description falls well short of the scope of Israel’s actions. Bibi and his henchman, Ehud Barak, went even farther.

Barak, as I have detailed, tried to convince the US public that American intelligence had reassessed Iran’s nuclear program and now agreed with him that a threat was imminent. This was a whole new level of deception, and, although it was quickly exposed, the chicanery was met with a great deal of anger in Washington.

These acts, coupled with Netanyahu’s and Barak’s constant maneuvering in Israel to find a way around the military and intelligence consensus against a unilateral Israeli strike (and not a small amount of doubt that a military strike was wise or timely, even if the US was involved,) finally led to a break. Israeli President, Shimon Peres used his usually ceremonial office, coupled with his own past as a Prime Minister, to undermine Netanyahu’s and Barak’s efforts. Others joined him, and it now appears that an Israeli strike is, at least for now, off the table. That also relieves pressure on Obama, and makes any sort of military action before the election much less likely.

But we should look carefully at Peres’ concerns. They center on the United States. Friction between Israeli Prime Ministers and US Presidents is not unusual. Dwight Eisenhower clashed with David Ben-Gurion, Jimmy Carter with Menachem Begin, George H.W. Bush with Yitzhak Shamir. But Peres clearly sensed some greater danger here to the US-Israel relationship.

Indeed, the rhetoric from the far right in recent weeks has shifted from Iran to focusing on Obama’s inaction in Syria, and AIPAC has been remarkably quiet as the election nears. It has been the Israelis themselves taking the lead, and clearly the Lobby forces in the US are trying to avoid being hit by any of the fallout. One can see why.

Peres was moved enough to engage Netanyahu in a public fight. Given that a majority of his cabinet opposed going to war, and the military and intelligence leadership was united against a unilateral Israeli attack, this seems a bit of overkill. But Peres wanted to put a stop to Bibi’s and Barak’s shenanigans before they did any more damage to Israel’s relationship with the United States. With current polls projecting a very tight election, Peres must be shuddering at Bibi’s willingness to double down on a Romney victory.

It remains to be seen whether or not any sort of lasting damage has been done to Israel’s standing in the US. But one thing is for certain: after all the maneuvers, the political pressure from the domestic lobby and the attempts at agitation by the Israeli leadership, the Obama Administration has stayed the course it determined a long time ago in dealing with Iran. That course itself may leave a lot to be desired, but it is at least the result of US politics, not Israeli.

This could go down as one of the greatest losses for Israeli influence on the US in the history of their relationship. Netanyahu and Barak pulled out all the stops, but utterly failed to move Obama, despite the President’s generally deferential attitude toward powerful lobbying forces, most assuredly including AIPAC.

Lobbies are only as powerful as they are perceived to be. Maybe, just maybe, the perception of this one may have taken a step closer toward reality with this setback. That would be a great boon, not only to US foreign policy, not only for the Palestinians and other Arabs bearing the brunt of misguided US policies, but very much for Israel as well.

Photograph courtesy of Abode of Chaos. Published under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment

  1. This was a very well written article. Kudos to you man. You made good use of over-arching political history to familiarize the reader with the situation. I also enjoyed your take on the role of AIPAC and what sort of impact the U.S. election season is having on U.S./Israeli ties.

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