Can Netanyahu Repair the Rift With the U.S.?

Can Netanyahu Repair the Rift With the U.S.?

When an Israeli cabinet minister proposes that his country impose
sanctions on the United States, his government is clearly in a state of
distress. Pressure from the Obama Administration to freeze Israeli
settlement construction and move toward a two-state peace with the Palestinians has reportedly spurred Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled to recommended that Israel shop outside the U.S. for aircraft and military hardware, sell sensitive technology to clients disapproved of by Washington, and invite America’s rivals to play a greater role in the Middle East. And if that sounds like chutzpah given the continued U.S. direct aid to Israel — $2.5 billion in military aid this year alone — two Israeli newspapers reported Wednesday that Peled had even proposed that Israel use its influence with some Democratic donors in the U.S. as leverage against Obama’s positions.

Peled’s proposals aren’t likely to be adopted, but they are a sign of the deep anxiety in Israel’s right-wing government over the Obama
Administration’s intention to move quickly toward the creation of a
Palestinian state at peace with Israel. Particularly irksome to Netanyahu is Obama’s insistence that Israel immediately freeze all construction in
settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — territories conquered
by Israel in 1967 — that together with Gaza are envisaged as the basis of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s government has thus far refrained from embracing the two-state formula, and is committed to expanding the existing settlements. It claims a right to continue building inside the boundaries of the settlements to accommodate their “natural growth,” an argument flatly rejected by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” Obama said in his Cairo speech. “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

The Administration’s position leaves Israel little wiggle room on settlements — a huge problem for a right wing-led government whose coalition agreement is premised on continued construction in the occupied territories. And as he shapes up to deliver a major policy address Sunday billed as a response to Obama, Netanyahu is feeling the heat. Israeli media have reported aides to the prime minister complaining that the White House is seeking a confrontation with Israel in order to ease anti-American hostility in the Muslim world, and even that Obama is seeking “regime-change” in Israel.

But the issue of settlements may be a smart litmus test of Israel’s
intentions, because it draws a clear line between those in Israel and among its supporters abroad who support a two-state solution, and those who don’t. Obama is betting the ayes have it. Since taking office earlier this year, Netanyahu has tried to keep his cards close to his chest, but now he’s being forced to reveal his intentions. Opinion polls often find a majority of Israelis willing to give up West Bank settlements in exchange for a genuine peace, and that same majority is unlikely to be willing to jeopardize Israel’s relationship with the United States in order to defend the settlers’ right to build on Palestinian land, a right the settlers say is based on the argument that it forms part of the Biblical Land of Israel.

Netanyahu was reportedly shocked to discover, during his recent
Washington trip, that Obama’s position on settlements had the backing of
many key friends of Israel on Capitol Hill. The President, in his Cairo
speech, reaffirmed a rock-solid bond with Israel based on ensuring its
security in a hostile environment. But that support doesn’t translate into
condoning the “Greater Israel” expansion into occupied territories
represented by the settlements, which play little role in Israel’s security
today except as a drain on resources. A settlement freeze, conceived in the
so-called Road Map to peace as part of a first step toward a two-state solution,
is not perceived as compromising Israel’s security, which is why the
Administration has thus far managed to secure congressional support for its

Netanyahu pleads that his hawkish coalition will collapse if he does as Obama asks, but skeptics point out that the Prime Minister chose to ally with the far-right when he might have chosen the centrist Kadima party, which has enough seats to shore up a government committed to a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s problem is not simply his partners, but also his own Likud party. Former Likud leader Ariel Sharon was forced to quit the party — in the face of a
challenge led by Netanyahu — when he pulled Israel out of Gaza. Likud’s
party platform specifically opposes the creation of a Palestinian state in
the West Bank and Gaza. Rather than a prisoner of the right, Netanyahu has
until now been its most presentable leader.

But the Israeli mainstream is not comfortable clashing with Washington,
and Israel’s media — and opposition leader Tsipi Livni — are openly
challenging Netanyahu’s stewardship of the country’s most important
strategic relationship.

Now, Netanyahu may be moving to reposition himself, or, at least, to
rebrand his position. He’s likely to make some concessions in easing the
siege of Gaza by allowing more goods in to enable a reconstruction that has
thus far been prevented by the Israeli blockade. And he’ll also likely take
down one or two outposts built without permission by Israeli zealots outside of the boundaries of their existing settlements. Such actions will provoke televised clashes between settlers and police, and make
the case that Netanyahu is acting on the settlement issue . And he may also ratchet up Israeli operations
against Hamas operatives, to remind the U.S. and his own electorate of
Israeli security concerns.

In Sunday’s speech, reports suggest he’ll adopt language compatible with Obama’s goals, and even use the term “Palestinian state” as the wrapper for his own, far more restricted conception of Palestinian sovereignty. Israeli reports from sources close to the Prime Minister say the speech, over which he is still consulting allies, will embrace a limited, conditional version of the two-state solution, but will
at the same time push back against the call for a settlement freeze. Nobody knows yet exactly what Netanyahu will say in his effort to harmonize his government’s positions with Washington’s — but it’s a safe bet that he won’t be threatening
America with sanctions.