The holidays are over and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a problem. He has to respond to U.S. President Barack Obama's ultimatum, the gist of which is the demand to freeze construction in East Jerusalem and the numbers of Jews moving there. Netanyahu would have been glad to dismiss Obama's demands, but he understands that he can't, so he's waging a PR campaign in the United States to soften the administration's position.
Netanyahu has been saying for many years now that the president is not an autocrat and that American foreign policy is influenced by Congress, public opinion, the media and think tanks. Now his theory is being put to the test. Over the past three weeks the administration has been flooded with letters by U.S. representatives and senators, ads of support by Ron Lauder and Elie Wiesel, editorials and columns, television interviews with the prime minister and e-mails from Jewish supporters of Israel. They all warn, at various levels of bluntness and harshness, that Obama is abandoning Israel in the face of threats from Iran's nuclear program and Palestinian terror.
Obama's pressures have called Netanyahu's bluff: It's not Iran that is Netanyahu's top priority, as he claimed before he was elected, but rather the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The fact is, the prime minister did not call on Elie Wiesel and members of congress to warn against the "second Holocaust" that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is plotting, but to prevent construction plans at the Shepherd Hotel, Silwan and Ramat Shlomo from shutting down, which would cost the prime minister his right-wing coalition.
From Netanyahu's point of view, Obama misled him. The prime minister wanted only one thing: not to come out looking like a sucker. To him, statecraft consists of give and take, of "if they give they'll get," while Obama wants only to take - he opposes a surprise attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and is hardening his demands on the Palestinian issue. It started with the acceptance of the two-state principle, continued with a construction freeze in the settlements, and has now arrived in East Jerusalem, in the shadow of a threat to force a solution that will take Israel out of the West Bank and to the 1967 lines.
Netanyahu is coming out a super-sucker: He gave and gave and got nothing. Netanyahu expected that in return for his gestures to the Palestinians, Obama would harden his position on Iran and come closer to the threshold of conflict ("paralyzing sanctions"). But the president is not playing along. His feeble moves signal that the Americans are coming to terms with the Iranian nuclear program. Instead of pressuring Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he is pressuring Netanyahu to get out of the territories and hinting that Israel might embroil America in a very bloody and costly war.
Obama-haters are using Israel to goad the president for "hurting allies," and this is driving the White House even crazier. Netanyahu is torn between his political supporters at home and in the United States who are pushing him toward a direct conflict with a hostile administration, and his understanding that the rainy day will come when Israel needs Obama's help.
But Netanyahu's problem is much deeper and more serious than the coalition's makeup. Replacing Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi with Tzipi Livni would soften Israel's aggressive tone toward "the world" but not really change the situation. No Israeli government would risk rockets on Tel Aviv, a civil war with the settlers and a political rupture in the Israel Defense Forces just to satisfy Obama.
An Israel that is preparing for conflict with Iran and that does not trust American support will not move an inch in the territories. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will try to wear Obama and his people out with empty discussions until a decision is made on whether to go to war. Netanyahu and Barak know that the extent of Israel's concessions in the territories will determine the extent of American help in stopping the Iranian nuclear program. Itamar in exchange for Natanz.
Netanyahu managed to rouse public discourse in the United States about Israel, and Obama got the message. His statement on Independence Day was enthusiastic and warm, speaking about Israel as the historic homeland of the Jewish people and assuring continued efforts to work for a two-state solution and "to counter the forces that threaten Israel, the United States, and the world" (that is, Iran). Now that the fireworks are over, it will become clear whether the president's message was mere lip service to quiet the criticism at home, or whether it signals intent to forge a deal with Netanyahu.
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