Faulty Lines: Netanyahu Says 'ISIS' but His Listeners Hear 'Gaza, Occupation'

When Netanyahu tries to brand Israel’s private conflict with the Palestinians as a battle in the clash of civilizations, the Obama administration sees him as a used car salesman.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a graduation ceremony of Israeli naval officers in Haifa, September 2, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a graduation ceremony of Israeli naval officers in Haifa, September 2, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Sometimes you don’t need more than official communiques in order to get the whole story. Take the statement issued on Saturday by Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz following “two days of marathon talks” on the annual Strategic Dialogue between Israel and the United States: The first item on the agenda was “the American coalition against ISIS.” The press release also included Steinitz’s praise for President Obama’s decision to fight Islamic State, along with the caveat that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were nonetheless more important.

Steinitz’s statement conveniently included the communique issued concurrently by the U.S. State Department which noted the two countries’ “shared commitment to fight terror” but, lo and behold, made no mention of the specific name of the Islamic State or any of its derivatives. On the other hand, the American statement stressed “the urgent need for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance” in Gaza, “the importance of strengthening the Palestinian Authority” and the U.S. concern about “continued settlement activity in the West Bank.”

These are the parallel lines of the public dialogue of the deaf that Jerusalem has been having with Washington ever since Benjamin Netanyahu copy-wrote and then fell in love with his “Hamas=ISIS” equation. The Israeli Prime Minister has been trying to place Israel at the forefront of the battle against the jihadist terror group, but Washington prefers to push him to the sidelines while John Kerry hip-hops the region. Netanyahu continues to find similarities between Hamas and Islamic State, but over at the State Department spokesperson Marie Harf makes a daily run to point out the differences. And when Netanyahu tries to brand Israel’s private conflict with the Palestinians as one of many battles in the clash of civilizations, the Obama administration and European capitals look at him like a used car salesman.

It’s not that Netanyahu is the reason why Israel hasn’t been openly invited to join the coalition against the Islamic State, as Labor Party leader Bougie Herzog rather preposterously claims. Even without the bad blood that gushes between Netanyahu and the Obama administration and even if Islamic State is indeed a common enemy of all concerned, the most moderate Arab states would still find it hard to publicly stand alongside Israel against fellow Arabs, no matter how extreme. This is especially true after the harsh blow that Israel dealt to Gaza, which Herzog enthusiastically supported.

One could claim that nothing much has changed since America asked Israel to maintain a “low profile” in order to help enlist the anti-Saddam coalition during the first Gulf War, were it not for the amazing lack of self-awareness of decision makers in Jerusalem of the glaring gap between the way the world views them and the way they see themselves after Operation Protective Edge. Even if Israel could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Islamic State and Hamas are identical twins, it would still fail to convince anyone but Netanyahu’s arch-admirers in America that his true aim isn’t to make the world forget Gaza and deflect potential pressures on the Palestinian issue.

When you factor in the Israeli government’s “proper Zionist response” of appropriating 1,000 acres of West Bank land, it makes it hard even for people who agree with most of Israel’s basic arguments to defend it. As Gary Rosenblatt wrote recently in the New York based Jewish Week in an editorial called West Bank Grab, “Rather than feed our obsession with critiquing the media for its bias toward Israel, it would be more effective to let Israel’s leaders know of our discomfort with their diplomatic arrogance.”

There is a tragic element in Netanyahu’s behavior. Anyone who reads his statement to a Congressional committee on September 20, 2001, 10 days after 9/11, cannot deny his prescient analysis of the future of extremist Islamic terror. Nonetheless, although Israel supports the American campaign against Islamic State “with things that are known and things that are less known”, as Netanyahu put it on Thursday, the world would prefer that he do more to advance a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which, in most eyes, fuels Islamic extremists. But not only did Netanyahu do very little to end the occupation, he is now being seen as exploiting the campaign against Islamic State in order to pretend that it doesn’t even exist.

As long as this is the case, he may find it difficult to persuade the world that Israel is on the right side of what he describes as the “moral divide”.

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