Saturday 21 November 2009

Netanyahu's American Credentials

Bibi Netanyahu is regarded as "almost American" by many Israelis. It is true that Netanyahu, who spent many years in the USA sounds like an American when he speaks English. There is also a suggestion that he understands the American psyche. So why is it that Israel's relationship with the USA seems to deteriorate when Bibi is in charge? I am not only referring to the events of the past few weeks. On the previous occasion when Bibi was prime minister, Israel's relationship with the US also seemed to go through a significant dip.

Netanyahu returned last week from his trip to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA) meeting in Washington DC. Netanyahu's trip to the GA had been scheduled for some time prior to the assembly. Due to the fact that the GA was held this year in Washington DC, and given the fact that President Barack Obama was also invited to address the GA, it seemed logical that Bibi should seek a meeting with the US president. There are a number of open issues on the agenda between the two countries. It is reported that Obama did not respond to a number of requests from the Israeli prime minister for this meeting. This has been viewed as a snub to Netanyahu by Obama. In the event, Obama cancelled his address to the GA and travelled instead to Fort Hood in Texas to attend a memorial for the victims of the mass shooting there. Obama's chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel addressed the GA in place of the president.

Netanyahu did eventually manage to engineer a meeting with Obama at the White House. There are conflicting views about how sensible it was for Netanyahu to insistent upon meeting with Obama after it was initially made clear by Obama that he was not enthusiastic about such a meeting. Many media sources suggested that Bibi had been humiliated by the manner in which Obama had ignored his initial requests for a meeting. There were even references made to unnamed sources in the prime minister's office who concurred with this view. It is mentioned that the meeting was specially scheduled for a late hour in Washington that would ensure that news of the meeting would be too late for the main news broadcasts in Israel. In this way, Bibi could not capitalise on the news arising from the meeting until the following day in Israel.

When news of the meeting did eventually hit the Israeli press, it was almost unanimously negative. This, in spite of the fact that no formal press conference was held nor press statements issued. It was described by the Israeli press as a bad meeting which was angry and confrontational. The reception given to the prime minister by the president was alleged to be "cold". In particular, the president is reputed to have expressed gross satisfaction over the issue of building and expansion in the Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line. The prime minister's office went out of its way to refute the press reports. Officials described the meeting as warm and open, and that it presented an opportunity to reignite the momentum to move towards renewed talks with the Palestinians.

Whatever the outcome of this particular meeting, there is no dispute over the fact that relations between Jerusalem and Washington have been strained in recent months. This is a stark reminder of the deterioration in relations between the two countries towards the end of 1996 when Bibi opened a new exit for the Western Wall tunnels which triggered riots and unrest amongst the Palestinians. But the main issue which annoyed the Clinton administration at that time was the same one which is now causing disquiet with the Obama government. The issue of expansion of settlements, then like now, is the main cause of a deterioration in relations. Whilst I do not expect the Israeli prime minister to compromise himself in carrying out matters of policy that may be good for Israel, I do question the way in which he does it.

I am trying to understand Netanyahu's tactics in his dealings with the USA administration. Even when taking actions that are known to be against the wishes of the White House, it seems to me that there is a way of doing this in order to minimise the negative impact. After all, the continued support of the USA administration is important for Israel. Bibi appears to ignore this principle, and has undertaken these difficult actions in a way which flies in the face of the president and his men. If he had only done this once, I could agree that it may have been an error. Now that he seems to be adopting the same tactics again, it appears to be deliberate. Is he trying to show that he is unafraid to stand up to the "most powerful man in the world"? If so, what will this achieve? Does he believe that his constituency will admire him more for showing that he stands up to the USA administration? If this is the case, I wonder whether he has considered the price that Israel has to pay for the breakdown in relations with USA.

The difficulty that Netanyahu experienced in getting a meeting with Obama will not be a new experience for him. President Clinton refused to meet Netanyahu when he travelled to the USA in November 1997. The summit at Wye Plantation which followed in 1998 was not only a disaster in advancing Israeli peace talks with the Palestinians, it also did not result in the release of Jonathan Pollard which was promised by Clinton at the time. By all accounts, Bibi's tactics did not yield any positive results.

We are forced to recognise that, without the involvement of the Americans, peace in the Holy Land is impossible. Whilst this should not mean that we need to compromise all our principles and only bow to American requirements, it does mean that it is important to recognise the importance of the Americans in our world. I feel that the time has come for Bibi to use his American skills to the best advantage of Israel and make more of an effort to court the White House, instead of flying in the face of the American administration which is unlikely to help Israel. Israel cannot afford to be in a situation where its prime minister is ignored when requesting a meeting with the US president. I cannot imagine anything which can present this as being positive for Israel. Netanyahu would do well to learn lessons from his previous experiences as quickly as possible.

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