The Obama Administration’s Best Move Against Netanyahu: Hands Off, Do Nothing

This is not the time for tougher talk or sanctions over settlements, unless, of course, you’re rooting for Bibi.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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President Barack Obama listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Oct. 1, 2014.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Yitzhak Rabin didn’t really win the 1992 elections. True, his Labor Party emerged as the largest, with 44 Knesset seats, and the leftist/Arab bloc secured an unassailable 61-seat majority in the Knesset. But Rabin would never have become prime minister for the second time were it not for four right-wing splinter parties that never made it past the then-threshold of 1.5 percent. If they had not run, the right wing bloc would have won three more Knesset seats, Yitzhak Shamir would have returned to the prime minister’s office for a fourth term and the Oslo Accords would have remained a pipe dream, for better or for worse.

I am not recounting these details in order to highlight the foibles of Israel’s proportional voting system, though these are certainly worthy of examination, especially as the threshold has now risen to 3.25 percent. My aim is to challenge the conventional wisdom that the Likud lost the 1992 elections because of Shamir’s confrontation with George Bush Sr. over settlements and loan guarantees. So first, he didn’t lose, and second, there were far more potent elements that played a far more decisive role in Shamir’s defeat. Whether the fight with the “powerful political forces” that Bush alluded to in his infamous September 12, 1991 speech contributed to his own fall in the subsequent presidential elections is also debatable, but for all we know, the showdown may have actually helped Shamir.

After all, the entire deck was stacked against Shamir from the outset. Not only was the 77 year old leader pitted against the younger Six Day War hero and tough-talking defense minister Rabin – rather than the far less popular Peres that Shamir had fended off before - but the overall situation in the country was as bad as it had been for years. The security situation had deteriorated, with a wave of stabbings sweeping the country; the economy was struggling to adapt to the influx of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from the Soviet Union, with unemployment stubbornly hovering at the 11 percent mark; and the coalition was constantly trying to cope with a wave of demands for religious legislation from Shamir’s ultra-Orthodox partners that upset the general public, as well as with the recurring revelations of corruption at the top. Against this backdrop, the spat with Bush was the least of Shamir’s problems.

All of which is to say that no one in Washington should be under any illusion that there is any “Shamir precedent” - or that it might work against Netanyahu. In fact, he would probably like nothing better than for the administration to get tougher, especially in public: A confrontation with Washington could divert attention away from widespread doubts about his leadership, from the high cost of living, and even from the moribund peace process, all factors that could theoretically combine to upset the right-wing/religious bloc’s built-in majority.

This would be true of any U.S. administration, but is doubly valid in the case of Barack Obama. Rightly or wrongly – the latter in my opinion – most Israelis don’t trust Barack Obama and don’t appreciate the wide-ranging military and diplomatic assistance that his administration has provided Israel during his six years in office. The fact that Netanyahu is personally responsible for creating the public’s distrust of Obama does not detract from the dividends he could reap if Washington is perceived as ganging up him now or cuddling his replacements instead.

As the recent poll published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies proves, despite their lack of enthusiasm for Obama, Israelis hold relations with the United States in high regard. When the wavering voters who are going to decide these elections will weigh the alternatives, they might bear in mind that Netanyahu is more than likely to clash with Obama for another two years at least. This consideration could influence them, provided the administration does not go out of its way to prove the point. Then, the gut Israeli instinct of “no one will tell us what to do” will set in, and the short-term reaction will be to go the opposite way, in Netanyahu’s direction.

So the best advice for the administration in the 100 or so days left before the elections is: Hands off, do nothing. Don’t rock the boat. If Israel tries to provoke you by announcing new building in settlements, for example, don’t play dead, of course, but don’t go overboard either. This is not the time to consider sanctions or any other punitive steps, unless, of course, you’re rooting for Bibi.

The same is true of the American vote at the Security Council on the Palestinian proposal to establish a “date certain” for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. The best option would be if Washington could persuade the Palestinians to postpone, but failing that Washington should veto the proposal even if it had previously planned otherwise. An abstention in the weeks before Israelis go to the polls would allow Netanyahu to whip up enough public hysteria over perfidious Obama that could potentially prove decisive. He will already be milking the administration’s efforts to dissuade the newly-Republican Senate from imposing new sanctions on Iran for all their worth; a Security Council decision in favor of the Palestinians would be the frothing, an added bonus for Bibi.

Perhaps there are some administration officials who are yearning to retaliate against Netanyahu for his blatant intervention in 2012 on behalf of Obama’s opponent Mitt Romney, but they would do well to remember that it didn’t do much good. They should also keep in mind Bill Clinton’s even more explicit efforts on behalf of Shimon Peres in 1996, and Clinton was immensely more trusted and loved than Obama. For all we know, it was this showering of support for Peres that gave Netanyahu the extra oomph he needed to eke out a victory. If Shamir had competed against Rabin in direct elections, as Netanyahu did four years later, he might also have won, Bush and all.

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