Some of you may’ve erroneously thought Bibi Netanyahu was the leader of Israel’s Likud party. But you’d be wrong. He’s actually a Republican representing the U.S.’s 51st state, Israel. How else to explain the fact that Bibi has given up on having any relationship or impact on Pres. Obama and thrown in his lot with the Republican led Congress, which has invited him to address a joint session and lay out his “bold, new” plan for peace.
As Helen Cooper writes in today’s NY Times, even Bibi knows he’s not going to say anything substantive or persuasive to anyone but his own right-wing back home. But that’s not the purpose of the speech. Its real purpose is to pre-empt a (from Bibi’s point of view) far harsher new plan from the Obama administration which Hillary Clinton has been advocating:
Mr. Netanyahu, fearful that his country would lose ground with any Obama administration plan, has been considering whether to pre-empt the White House with a proposal of his own, before a friendly United States Congress, according to American officials and diplomats from the region.
“People seem to think that whoever goes first gets the upper hand,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator…“If Bibi went first and didn’t lay out a bold peace plan, it would be harder for Obama to say, actually, despite what you said to Congress and their applause, this is what I think you should do.”
The political gamesmanship between the two men illustrates how the calculation in the Middle East has changed for a variety of reasons, including the political upheaval in the Arab world. But it also shows the lack of trust and what some officials say is personal animosity between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu.
Bibi is under the deeply mistaken impression that he can divide and conquer by setting a Republican Congress against a “hostile” president. He seems to forget that it is the latter who determines foreign policy and not the former. It seems astonishing to me, in that regard, the Congressional Republicans are interjecting themselves directly into a such a debate in a deliberate attempt to upstage the president. It used to be that the Congress respected the executive branch’s prerogative to make foreign policy. Not any more obviously.
I think it can only be disastrous for Obama to lay out a new policy initiative regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace talks without committing to do whatever it takes to ensure they will succeed. Clearly, Obama does not have such will and may never have. Nor does he have the political capital to enforce his will domestically by staking out such a bold position. He essentially spent all his capital when he backed a failed effort for a settlement freeze.
The Times article notes that one of the “terms of reference” of a possible new Obama speech would be a demand that Palestinians give up the Right of Return. This is actually a step backwards from negotiations between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, in which the former conceded Israeli recognition of ROR (though in more a symbolic than substantive way). To have the U.S. backtrack on that is more than disheartening. It will leave Palestinians cold and leave the U.S. out in the cold as a viable player in the I-P peace process.
The best Obama can do is to allow an international campaign to take shape calling for a Palestinian state to be created in 1967 borders. As such an effort gathers steam, he might be able to contribute to it in some way (rather than stymie it as Israel would hope and expect). I’m sorry to say there is little more that can be expected from the U.S.
Bibi’s upcoming address to Congress is an implicit expression of disdain for Pres. Obama. The American people, those who care about the Middle East, will sense this and they will not take kindly to it. They don’t cotton to foreign leaders trying to play one branch off against another. It seems too cute by half.
The Israeli leader is taking a calculated risk believing that the new Republican Congress has sufficiently weakened Obama that there is little he can do to impose his will on Israel. This may be true. But there is much that Obama can refuse to do that can harm Likudist interests as well. He could refuse to lobby strenuously against a General Assembly vote endorsing Palestinian statehood. He could tacitly encourage the EU to recognize a Palestinian state. He could decide not to fight efforts to sanction Israel for refusing to recognize a Palestinian state. I don’t see Obama doing this yet. But the time may come…