Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Israel’s Awful New Government

Netanyahu and Lieberman are already thumbing their noses at Obama. Will he have the courage to stand up for U.S. interests?

YEHUDA RAIZNER/AFP/Getty Images
YEHUDA RAIZNER/AFP/Getty Images
YEHUDA RAIZNER/AFP/Getty Images

There's a reason no one has ever accused Israeli leaders of being shy. When U.S. President Barack Obama appointed Sen. George Mitchell as his envoy on Middle East peace, he made a point of saying that a two-state solution was the best way to safeguard U.S. interests and secure Israel's future. And yesterday in Jerusalem, as the new Israeli government took office, the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, began making his counterpoints.

It seems the new Israeli administration -- as evidenced both by its appointments and its policies -- is ready to go head-to-head with the Obama team, and it isn't trying to be subtle.

It's no big news that the new foreign minister, former Moldovan Avigdor Lieberman, has controversial politics (except perhaps by the standards of the Milosovic regime in the 1990s), though they've caused little more than quiet grumblings in foreign capitals. But if there was any lingering hope that his race-centric views and militant posturing were simply campaign tactics, those hopes were dampened by his speech at the handover ceremony at the Foreign Ministry. Lieberman was dismissive of recent peace talks, saying, The Israeli government never ratified [the commitment to a two-state solution at] Annapolis; nor did [the] Knesset. All concessions Israel made were in vain, he said. Those who want peace should prepare for war and be strong.

There’s a reason no one has ever accused Israeli leaders of being shy. When U.S. President Barack Obama appointed Sen. George Mitchell as his envoy on Middle East peace, he made a point of saying that a two-state solution was the best way to safeguard U.S. interests and secure Israel’s future. And yesterday in Jerusalem, as the new Israeli government took office, the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, began making his counterpoints.

It seems the new Israeli administration — as evidenced both by its appointments and its policies — is ready to go head-to-head with the Obama team, and it isn’t trying to be subtle.

It’s no big news that the new foreign minister, former Moldovan Avigdor Lieberman, has controversial politics (except perhaps by the standards of the Milosovic regime in the 1990s), though they’ve caused little more than quiet grumblings in foreign capitals. But if there was any lingering hope that his race-centric views and militant posturing were simply campaign tactics, those hopes were dampened by his speech at the handover ceremony at the Foreign Ministry. Lieberman was dismissive of recent peace talks, saying, The Israeli government never ratified [the commitment to a two-state solution at] Annapolis; nor did [the] Knesset. All concessions Israel made were in vain, he said. Those who want peace should prepare for war and be strong.

Netanyahu sent a similar message by appointing his longtime aid Uzi Arad to be national security advisor. Since 2007, Arad, reportedly because the Bush administration considered him a counterintelligence risk, has been denied a visa to come to the United States. You know Arad must have pushed some sensitive buttons to have ticked off an otherwise forgiving Bush administration.

The messages that Netanyahu and Lieberman have sent in the past 48 hours highlight a fast-evolving concern for the Obama administration: The new Israeli government has adopted a domestic and foreign policy almost entirely opposed to that of the United States. And those policy differences center on three issues: Israeli domestic policy toward its Arab minority (which constitutes about 20 percent of Israel’s population), Israel’s intent to occupy the Palestinian West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights indefinitely, and Israel’s desire for the United States to militarily degrade Iran’s industrial capability, in particular its nuclear program.

The status of the Arab minority is perhaps the most complicated for the Obama administration to address, as it’s a domestic issue for Israel. But it also matters for the United States. How Israel treats the Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship has direct consequences for Israel’s security, for the peace process, and for the region. Lieberman has taken the idea of two states for two peoples to an extreme. He seeks an Israel that effectively is not only predominantly Jewish, but one that is almost entirely Jewish. Lieberman imagines a transfer of some Israeli cities with Arab populations bordering the 1967 green line out of the Israeli polity, but to where? His prime minister has ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

More broadly, the mix of official government opposition to Palestinian independence, open discussion of ethnic separation, and the almost apocalyptic discourse being promoted by Israeli academics such as Benny Morris are creating a Balkan-like situation within Israel proper that could quickly eclipse the situation in the occupied territories as a threat to international peace and stability if allowed to continue.

Then of course, there is the not-so-small matter of the two-state solution. After three years of sanctions and the isolation of Hamas for its refusal to publicly endorse a two-state solution and accept Israel’s right to exist, Israel now has a government with the same policy, but in reverse. Not once in his speech did Netanyahu mention the words two-state solution. Palestinians and Israeli critics — namely opposition leader Tzipi Livni — noted the absence and all it suggested. True, Netanyahu has said he would respect previous Israeli agreements, but Lieberman’s dismissal of the Annapolis process speaks volumes.

And then there is Iran. Israeli leaders and their advocates have already promoted a full-court blitz demanding that the United States stop Iran, or Israel will be forced to do so on its own. In part, this is bluster, as few analysts believe Israel is able to attack Iran on its own, and no one believes that Iran wouldn’t retaliate, which would force the United States into the middle of the conflict. However, this emphasis on Iran serves another useful purpose for Netanyahu and Lieberman: Not only does it remove Palestinian independence and potential Israeli peace treaties with the Arab world from U.S. focus, but it sets the agenda for the U.S.-Israeli talks that are to take place this May.

So far, the Obama administration has kept its cards close to the vest — there’s little sign of how it will engage Israel’s new administration on such fundamental differences in policy. But one thing is certain. The longer the United States waits, the harder it will be for the Israeli government to back down from its positions. And it is clear, looking at the challenges facing the United States throughout the Middle East, that placing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank on the back burner is only going to add fuel to the many brush fires the United States is already fighting in the region. Dealing with a hostile and recalcitrant enemy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is hard enough, but the Obama administration may find that dealing with a hostile and recalcitrant ally brings its own set of challenges.

Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy are co-directors of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

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