Why Netanyahu Longs for an American Intervention in Israeli Elections

Early elections are throwing the U.S. administration into a diplomatic limbo: How can it press Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue without giving his campaign 'ammo'?

Reuters

One of the more trivial sentences in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's speech on Sunday night, was actually the most interesting one. "There are elections in Israel in a few months," Kerry said at the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum in Washington. The United States, he declared, would not involve itself "in the choice of the Israeli people" during their elections. "We will work with whatever government is elected, whatever its composition."

It is unlikely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes this. The fact that Kerry had to say what should be obvious only highlights the suspicions rippling between Jerusalem and Washington.

Neither the Prime Minister's Office nor the White House have forgotten that Netanyahu was the one who interfered with the U.S. presidential elections when he supported and pushed Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

The paranoia-prone Netanyahu has now added U.S. President Obama to the list of those he thinks are after him. Even before pushing up the elections, confidants of Netanyahu told anyone who would listen that Obama is plotting to drop a bomb in the form of an American peace plan on Israel. No that such plan ever existed.

But from the moment elections have been declared and Livni and Lapid were fired, it seems that Netanyahu's fear of American interference has become a desire for one. Otherwise it would be hard to explain the bombastic front headline of Netanyahu's journal Israel Hayom a few days ago. "Warning – in the two remaining years Obama will continue to advance negotiations," Bibi's paper heralded.

The headline was a distorted version of something U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro said at a speech in Bar Ilan University a day earlier. One of the subtitles on the front page even wondered whether this was American interference with the election campaign. The report itself claimed it was a message from President Obama.

But Shapiro meant nothing of the sort. In reality, it was just one of many speeches in which he repeated almost word for word Kerry's statement from the Brookings Institute speech.

However, as Netanyahu is swerving sharply to the right, he sees negotiations with the Palestinians as no less of a threat than the Iranian nuclear one. Heaven forbid someone should try to advance peace here. Especially the U.S. president.

Netanyahu – who is presenting Livni and Herzog as leftists who only want to make concessions to the Palestinians, give in to the world and evacuate territories - would be happy to portray his political rivals as Obama's collaborators and himself as the guardian of Jerusalem and Israel's sacred sites.

Herzog and Livni are well aware of this. This is why they played down their meetings with senior U.S. officials at the end of last week on the fringes of the Brookings Institute conference. American officials said Herzog and Livni's message to administration officials was to avoid any hint of interfering in the elections, so as not to provide Netanyahu with "ammunition" for his campaign. Every Israeli from the center-left who took part in the conference and met American officials repeated the same mantra.

Netanyahu's paranoia, however, wasn't completely unsubstantiated. White House officials in recent weeks held a few discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Haaretz revealed one such discussion, which dealt with moving from declarative denunciations to actual steps against Israeli construction in the settlements. Quite a few American officials supported such a move.

But then Netanyahu called for early elections and everything ground to a halt. Senior Israeli officials who visited Washington last week said the White House people looked like they were about to throw a hand grenade but were stuck at the last second with the grenade in one hand and the safety catch in the other. "They don't know what to do," one of the Israeli officials said. "Put the safety catch back in place, throw the grenade or just wait for something else to happen that would force them to make a decision."

That something else is liable to be the draft resolution the Palestinians are submitting to the UN Security Council, which calls for ending Israel’s occupation of the territories by the end of 2016 and establishing a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinians may bring the resolution to a vote within the next two weeks.

So far, the Americans have no answer to the Palestinian move. That is why Kerry summoned Netanyahu to an urgent meeting in Rome next Monday. 

A vote at the present time would put the Americans in an embarrassing situation. The White House wants to do everything in its power to avoid casting a veto on the Palestinian issue, for two reasons: Not only would it risk undermining its relations with Sunni Arab states that are vital to its coalition against the Islamic State group, but it would also grant Netanyahu a diplomatic win that would only strengthen him in the upcoming election campaign.

Yet failing to cast a veto is no less risky and complicated. American policy for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still based on direct negotiations between the parties, not on UN resolutions and votes. Moreover, such a move would set off a firestorm in the U.S. Congress. But above all, failure to cast a veto might well be interpreted as intervention in the Israeli election, giving Netanyahu the perfect campaign message and pushing the Israeli voter even farther to the right.

The Americans don’t have much time left to decide. Early Friday morning, Kerry will meet in Lima, Peru with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is pushing an alternative UN Security Council resolution of his own on the Palestinian issue. The Americans would like to buy a little more time – at least until after the Israeli election on March 17. If Kerry asks in a persuasive enough fashion, he could obtain a grace period of another few months from France. 

Then all he would need to do is get a little more time from the Palestinians. But that is already almost mission impossible.