Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fly Whiskers

When Bibi met Barack

Don't be fooled by the friendly act - Netanyahu's tone-deaf response to Obama's overtures will hurt him in the long run

o Ian Williams
o, Monday 18 May 2009 22.00 BST

Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likudnik friends do not do listening. They are like the fly in the La Fontaine fable, which buzzes around the horses' muzzles and thinks it is moving the coach. Flies with ideas above their station risk being swatted.

Israeli leaks suggested that at his first meeting with President Obama in Washington DC today, Netanyahu hoped, and maybe even expected, that if he just kept talking about Iran he could ignore recent Obama administration strictures. No one can say that he was not warned. Incremental signals from Washington have been building the case for the fly-whisk to come into operation.

Instead he was told firmly that there would be talks with Iran, rather than bombs, with "no artificial deadline," and that the Palestine issue is crucial, with a two state solution, and: "That means that all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed to," which is diplomatic-speak for Washington's expectation that Netanyahu will abide by the agreements that Israel has undertaken – for example on settlements, opening the Gaza crossings, and so on.

Netanyahu's studied refusal to mention a Palestinian state, and his anodyne prescription of two peoples living side by side, was an overtly meaningless evasion. The Bantu and the Afrikaaners lived side by side in. The issue was the unequal relationship between them. Similarly, any demand that the Palestinians accept a Jewish state is a calculated attempt to halt negotiations even before they start.

Netanyahu will play up a spurious agreement between the parties on Iran. But it will only wash for those amnesiacs who forget Israel's furious opposition to the diplomatic path and its impatience to send in the bombers – now overturned by Obama.

Any talk about Iran, when the two men met behind closed doors, probably featured the baneful effects of any Israeli attempt to bomb its way to a solution on the several hundred thousand US personnel in the region.

Despite Israeli claims that "the Arabs" are behind any attempts to attack Iran, Obama's team must know while some unelected Arab regimes may wish that if "'twere done, then 't twere best it were done quickly", neither they nor Turkey can call on any popular support for such a deal nor would they in any way want to be associated with such an attack. If they flew over Iraq, in defiance of Baghdad's majority Shia government, then the US's attempts to withdraw from the country could be either precipitately accelerated or bogged down interminably

This was just the opening bout of the Netanyahu v Obama match-up, but we can expect more to come. It is possible that Obama and his administration are lulling Netanyahu into a false sense of security and complacency, giving him enough time to reveal that he has no intention of listening to US policy.

To begin with, a more sensitive ear than Netanyahu's might have registered the shock-horror of Washington's assumption of an independent American foreign policy, so that Middle East statements have not been cleared with Israel first. That was apparent in the content of those various statements, warning about settlement building, nuclear non-proliferation, about house demolitions, about the two state solution, the border closures in Gaza and indeed Washington's warning against unilateral attacks on Iran.

In the domestic US context, Netanyahu is acting as if he puts full credence in the rumours about the infallibility of Israel's much-vaunted "lobby". But the question is, which lobby? The peace lobby, such as J-Street and its associates, has close ties with the administration. Aipac, the core of the Israel US lobby, has changed its leadership to include longtime supporters of Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden, a veteran pro-Israeli politician, reads Aipac the riot act. Even Rahm Emanuel – Israeli by descent - looks as if he will be the president's enforcer if there is any attempt by Netanyahu to turn Obama's policies round.

A popular US president, newly elected, with a financial crisis to hand, could soon persuade American voters that there good reasons not to send scarce cash to a foreign government set on ignoring the wishes of its benefactor. Serious signals like that would soon introduce term limits for Netanyahu's shaky coalition. Israeli voters tend to punish prime ministers who alienate the Americans too much. Netanyahu brought nothing to the table – and he is leaving with nothing even if, at this stage he did not get the public dressing down that is coming his way eventually.

Perversely, having the pugnacious Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister could burnish American credentials with everyone else in the region. There will be a visible difference between Obama and Netanyahu, in contrast to the Clinton and Bush era negotiations – when at best the US played good cop to Israel's bad cop, while both were actually torturing the Palestinians.

* Print this

No comments: