Benjamin Netanyahu has no luck. His trip to Paris and North America was supposed to be the start of a new page in his relations with world leaders, particularly U.S. President Barack Obama. A small reward after a tough year of isolation and criticism. And then, just a few hours before Netanyahu's meeting with his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, one of Israel's greatest supporters in the West, everything came crashing down around the prime minister's head.
The botched raid on the ship in the Gaza-bound flotilla, the killings of citizens from friendly nations and the bitter confrontation with Turkey - once again Israel is seen in the world as a bully. Instead of the enthusiastic statement of support for Israeli security and assurances about strengthening its strategic capabilities that Netanyahu expected from Obama, he received a phone call demanding that he get to the bottom of the circumstances that led to "the tragic events."
The same thing happened to Netanyahu at the start of his first term as prime minister, in September 1996, on his first official visit in the post to Europe. Between London and Germany there were reports of fighting in the territories and of Palestinian police officers firing at Israeli soldiers in response to the opening of the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem. Then, too, Netanyahu hesitated about curtailing his trip and returning to Israel. After a day of deliberating and crisis management by remote control he scrapped his schedule and returned home.
Netanyahu did the right thing by canceling his meeting with Obama and returning to Israel from Ottawa. It would have been a shame to waste Obama's precious time over the flotilla crisis and to force the president into making a decision about how much support to extend to Israel. Netanyahu discovered once again the difficulty of managing such a complex crises from afar, even in an age of advanced means of communication.
Once again, as with the tunnel incidents of 1996, Netanyahu will be forced to decide between continuing to sit on the fence or taking decisions on the peace process with the Palestinians and the siege of the Gaza Strip. In the last round, Bill Clinton forced him to meet with Yasser Arafat and subsequently to withdraw from Hebron. This time there is no such magic trick that can be pulled. That gives Netanyahu freedom to maneuver. Obama and his colleagues in the international community have no easy solutions to the complex problem of a Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Netanyahu's second problem is at home. During the prime minister's absence, responsibility for the current difficulties fell to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. As an experienced army man and an expert in special operations, he was supposed to know what questions to ask and to warn of potential pitfalls. He is no Amir Peretz, who went from being chairman of the Histadrut labor federation to defense minister in the Second Lebanon War. Barak sat before the cameras yesterday knowing that the defense minister becomes a scapegoat. It's in his job description.
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