Israel’s Isolation on Abbas-Hamas Cabinet Reflects Lack of Trust and Goodwill With U.S.

The efficacy of Jerusalem’s condemnation of Obama’s policies is ruled by the law of diminishing returns: the more Netanyahu doth protest, the less his objections matter.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on September 1, 2010.
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on September 1, 2010.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

One of the disturbing aspects of the confrontation between Jerusalem and Washington over the new Abbas-Hamas Palestinian cabinet is that the flare-ups between the two capitals have become routine. When the tense standoff comes against the backdrop of the kind of all-engulfing media storm that is accompanying the release of Taliban-held soldier Bowe Bergdahl, one is tempted to paraphrase the famous philosophical query: Is it really a crisis if no one pays attention?

True, the usual suspects are mortified: Prime Minister Netanyahu is “deeply troubled,” his envoy Ron Dermer on Facebook is “deeply disappointed," most of the Jewish establishment is blasting the new Palestinian cabinet and creative copywriters in Congress are working overtime to compete for the very limited media coverage that is available (with first prize clearly going to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, who described the Palestinian move as a “contortionist act, akin to an embarrassingly evil Cirque du Soleil trick - without any of the charm.”)

The problem is that the efficacy of Israel’s condemnations is now governed by the law of diminishing returns: The more Israel doth protest, the less its objections matter. President Obama would have undoubtedly sought to avoid a spat with Israel on the eve of an elections campaign and at a time when his own standings are plummeting, but he may prefer the limited political fallout of by now humdrum Israeli scorn over the disruptive diplomatic potential of cutting off ties and aid to the Palestinian Authority and possibly risking its collapse.

The mutual suspicion between the two allies also gives rise to the kind of misunderstandings that apparently fell in the discussions between Netanyahu and Secretary of State Kerry: The former understood that the U.S. would suspend aid while evaluating the situation, while the latter implied that Washington would evaluate the situation and then decide whether to suspend aid. The 2006 Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act and subsequent appropriation bills that are now being primed for an upcoming campaign in Congress are no less debatable: They mandate cutting off aid to a Palestinian government in which Hamas has “undue influence,” whatever that means, and in any case they may allow the President to circumvent the cessation of aid with an appropriate presidential certificate.

One way or another, the American decision to maintain the status quo opened the floodgates for almost instantaneous international recognition of Abbas’ new cabinet, from the United Nations to the European Union to Moscow and Beijing. On the eve of his retirement, the Palestinian president basked in the glory of having cleverly outfoxed his arch rival Netanyahu, while Israel’s international isolation was glaringly obvious for the entire world to see. For all those who still believe that America’s diplomatic support is essential for Israel’s strategic strength – and this may not include many of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers – it was a depressing display of weakness.

It’s not a question of who is right and who is wrong and what was promised when, because Abbas’ “technocratic cabinet” was designed from the outset to allow the Obama administration room to maneuver. Things would have turned out otherwise if there was more goodwill and mutual trust in the relations between Jerusalem and Washington, but after years of public and private criticism and contempt, after repeated Israeli efforts to block the administration in Congress and to openly support its political rivals on the campaign trail, it’s hard to believe that anyone in Israel was really surprised when, faced with two feasible courses of action, the United States chose the one that would embarrass Israel and put it in its place.

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