Terms of Engagement

Did Bibi Win the Midterms?

The Republican Congress isn't even in office yet and already it's screwing up the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.


As a general rule, American politicians do not rally to the side of foreign leaders when those leaders directly confront the president of the United States. I don’t, for example, recall liberal Democrats cheering on French President Jacques Chirac when he defied President George W. Bush on Iraq, even though they thought he was right. Siding with France would have seemed unpatriotic — and, of course, stupid. The American people, and thus their political leaders, will instinctively line up behind the president in the face of a direct challenge from abroad. Unless the country in question is Israel.

Witness the events of recent days: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, seems to have decided that it’s open season on Barack Obama. In his speech this week in New Orleans before the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Netanyahu not only repeated his longstanding view that Iran will curb its nuclear program only in the face of a credible threat of military action, but added — gratuitously, and with questionable accuracy — that the regime had stopped trying to build a bomb only in 2003, when it feared an attack by President-You-Know-Who.

This was, of course, only a prelude to the melodrama of the week, in which Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that it had approved plans to build 1,000 new homes in the Har Homa settlement of East Jerusalem — a blatant provocation both to the Palestinians, who view the area as part of a future Palestinian state, and to Obama, who has implored the Netanyahu government to freeze settlement construction as a necessary good-faith gesture toward the Palestinians. When Obama gently demurred that “this kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations,” Netanyahu’s office shot back, “Jerusalem is not a settlement; Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel” — an assertion almost universally disputed, since Israel seized East Jerusalem, which had not been included in its mandated territory, after the 1967 war. Netanyahu later waved off the controversy as “overblown.”

Netanyahu appears to have been thinking, “I can tell Obama where to stick it, because now he’s not only unpopular in Israel, but also weakened at home.” It is widely believed in Israel that Netanyahu’s close aides have been demeaning Obama to the Israeli public through an orchestrated whispering campaign and that this accounts in part for Obama’s dismal poll ratings there. And he and his Likud party have longstanding ties to the Republican Party, which shares Likud’s faith in free markets, its deep suspicion toward most Arab regimes, and its low regard for the Palestinian sense of grievance. Conservative evangelicals, an important GOP constituency, also tend to be passionately pro-Israel. Thus after the new settlement flare-up, Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told the New York Times that with the Republicans now in the ascendant, Netanyahu “feels that he’s got a freer hand here.”

I called the office of Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican whip and the leading GOP voice on Israel, to ask whether he felt this was so. Cantor has, among other things, suggested that aid to Israel be removed from the foreign-assistance budget so that his party could zero out funding to unfriendly countries while sparing Israel. Cantor was unavailable to talk, but I was sent remarks he had just made on talk radio-host Don Imus’s Imus in the Morning: “I don’t understand how the president wants to push our best ally in the Middle East into a posture of thinking that we’re not going to back their security.” Cantor said that “it is very controversial” to “slam our ally, Israel,” adding that “most Americans understand that Israel’s security is synonymous with America’s security.”

Actually, it’s extraordinary to think that any country’s security can be “synonymous” with that of the United States, though of course even this assumes that Netanyahu’s definition of Israel’s security is right, while that of, say, former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon, or aspiring prime minister Tzipi Livni, is wrong. Or is Cantor saying that Americans should automatically accept Israel’s own definition of its security? The United States doesn’t automatically accept even Britain’s definition of its own security. Whichever it is, the Israel-is-always-right wing of the Republican Party is in a much more powerful position today than it was two weeks ago, and Netanyahu would have every reason to believe that the GOP has his back. So much for those who say that the election had no effect on the conduct of foreign affairs.

Netanyahu has played this game of triangulation before, and not successfully. The last time he was prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, he courted Republican leaders and the Christian right as a counterweight to Bill Clinton. But Clinton cornered him by convening peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians at the Wye Plantation in late 1998. Such was Clinton’s popularity in Israel that Netanyahu feared that an intransigent stance at Wye would lead to the collapse of his coalition government. This episode gave rise to the idea that Netanyahu understood that he could not permit a breach with Washington.

But that was then. Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton — at least not in Israel. “I think the Obama folks have underestimated the problem,” says Daniel Levy, a Middle East expert and a founder of the liberal Jewish organization J Street. “You almost have to count Bibi among Obama’s domestic adversaries.”

How, then, should Obama react? After a previous such episode in March, when Vice President Joe Biden spoke in Israel of America’s unshakeable bond with the Jewish state only to be blindsided by Netanyahu’s announcement of new settlement construction, Obama remonstrated and Netanyahu apologized. But then the Netanyahu government refused to extend the building freeze and the White House backed off. In late September, the U.S. administration offered Tel Aviv a lavish list of inducements, including promises of military hardware, in exchange for just a 60-day freeze. Netanyahu declined. The administration might once again choose accommodation. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), in Israel this week, has already suggested that the Palestinians can be lured back to negotiations with other concessions.

Or, Levy asks, “Do you put a choice in front of him?” Obama could call Netanyahu’s bluff by presenting both sides with a map indicating a proposed territorial solution, an idea which has begun to gain currency. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would then have to decide whether to accept such a map as a starting point and thus put an end to the wrangling over settlements. Abbas would almost certainly agree. Netanyahu’s right-wing allies would denounce the idea, but Israel’s Labor Party, also a member of his coalition, would embrace it. Would Netanyahu again risk the survival of his government? “If you do it smartly,” says Levy, “you can repeat ’98-9” — that is, Wye.

Likud’s Republican allies in the United States would be quick to give Netanyahu cover should he reject such an offer; you can only imagine what Cantor would tell Imus this time around. But would that be politically wise? After all, Gen. David Petraeus has openly stated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contributes to anger at the United States in the Islamic world — not exactly a startling insight, but certainly proof that American security interests are not synonymous with Israel’s. Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have taken up this theme. Are Americans really going to choose Netanyahu and Likud over their civilian and military leaders? At what point does allegiance to an intransigent ally look like special pleading, or like the subordination of national security to partisan politics? Is it possible, in other words, that not only Netanyahu but his Republican die-hards are playing a dangerous game?

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." @jamestraub1
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