Analysis |

Security Council Punch Knocks Netanyahu Down From Hubris to Humiliation

The prime minister recruited Trump against Obama but the gambit blew up in his face, just as it did in the Iran deal.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.Credit: AP / Gali Tibbon
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The UN Security Council dealt a harsh diplomatic blow to the government of Israel and its cherished settlement project on Friday. The international community stood shoulder to shoulder against Israel; its closest ally abandoned Benjamin Netanyahu in his time of need. Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were declared illegal under international law. The June 4, 1967 borders were reaffirmed once again. A legal framework was laid down for punitive measures by the United Nations and individual states against settlements in particular and Israel in general.

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Resolution 2334 shatters the government-induced illusion that the settlement project has been normalized, that it passed the point of no return, that it is now a fait accompli that will remain unchallenged. In recent years, after President Obama desisted from efforts to advance the peace process. Netanyahu, his ministers and settler leaders had behaved as if the battle was over: Israel built and built, the White House objected and condemned, the facts on the ground were cemented in stone. You can have your cake and eat it too, the government implied: thumb your nose at Washington and the international community, build in the West Bank as if there’s no tomorrow and still get $38 billion dollars in unprecedented military aid. The so-called Formalization Bill recently approved by the cabinet, which sought to legalize outposts that Israel had once vowed to uproot, was one bridge too far, or, as the vulgar Israeli expression puts it, was like pissing from the high springboard: U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power singled it out as one of the catalyzers of the Security Council move.

The resolution is a personal slap in the face for Netanyahu, a parting shot by a president that appreciated his Israeli counterpart less the more he got to know him. It was doubly embarrassing for Netanyahu because of the victory celebrations that his office had orchestrated only a few hours earlier, after Egypt had announced it was postponing its anti-settlement proposal. Netanyahu’s spokespersons, confidantes and supporters in Israel and the United States feted the Prime Minister’s tactical genius and magical influence over world leaders, from President-elect Trump to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. Within a few short hours, Netanyahu was left, not for the first time, with egg on his face. He fell from hubris to humiliation in one fell swoop.

Just like his self-destructive moves to block the nuclear deal with Iran, Netanyahu was too clever by half. At his side, once again, was the architect of that failed gambit, Ambassador Ron Dermer. Just as they had gone behind Obama’s back to secure Netanyahu’s invitation to protest against the Iran deal in Congress and thus strengthened Obama’s resolve to fight them tooth and nail, the dynamic duo openly and brazenly tried to circumvent Obama once again by courting Trump, as if he was already president. Netanyahu now claims that Obama was part of an anti-Israel conspiracy and that he had planned to abstain in the Security Council all along; be that as it may, what is certain is that if Obama was having any doubts or second thoughts, Netanyahu’s shticks and tricks were enough to persuade him to leave the Israeli prime minister hanging by himself, high and dry.

Netanyahu’s maneuvers also left his BFF al-Sissi in the lurch: the Egyptian ambassador to the UN made a startling confession to the Security Council that his country had succumbed to extraordinary external pressures. One is left to wonder whatever happened to the dramatic diplomatic breakthroughs that Netanyahu has been touting recently. Where was Vladimir Putin, everyone’s favorite tyrant? What about China, which is increasingly putting its money into the Israeli high tech industry? What happened to the demise of the “automatic majority” against Israel, that Netanyahu had been projecting? How is it that despite the supposed sea change, when push came to shove, Israel was just as isolated as before? And when the president of the U.S. stepped aside, it was stripped naked, for the all the world to see.

The depth of Netanyahu’s political embarrassment will now determine the ferocity of his response. The campaign against Obama was launched already on Friday night, as Netanyahu accused the U.S. president of “colluding” against Israel and his ministers returned to the bad old days of besmirching Obama as an enemy of Israel. Netanyahu, as usual, might even derive political benefits from his predicament: he is a master, after all, at deflecting the Israeli public’s attention away from his failures to the supposed enemies at the gate. The settlers might also reap some advantage: the usual Pavlovian reaction is for Israel to announce a “proper Zionist reaction” such as building even more settlements, rather than looking squarely at the deadly trap in which they have ensnared the country.

Obama won’t be surprised. He’s seen this movie before, several times over, but nonetheless decided to abstain. "Obama has made it clear that he’s a Jew hating, anti-Semite” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, a prime representative of the no-holds-barred, in-your-face Jewish right wing that is in the ascendant now that Trump is about to become president. Klein’s strident vocabulary comes from the same dictionary used by Trump’s ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, who was joined Friday by Trump’s other adviser on Israel affairs. Jason Greenblatt, who Trump appointed as chief international negotiator. A moment before U.S.-Israeli relations are taken over by Trump’s Jewish emissaries, some with pseudo-Kahanist views, Obama decided to remind the world what he thinks of both Netanyahu and the settlements, even though he knew full well that it would tarnish his legacy with many American Jews.

Indeed, in many ways the Security Council vote is Obama’s last hurrah, the swan song not only of his presidency but of unequivocal American support for a two-state solution and opposition to Jewish settlements, a policy which, one must admit, Obama was better at formulating than actually achieving. Trump made clear immediately after the vote that “things will be different after January 20th” and Netanyahu quickly said that the day couldn’t come soon enough. But make no mistake: the Security Council’s deed cannot be undone. Whatever price Israel will pay for it will not change, with or without Trump.

And before Trump is declared Israel’s savior and a righteous gentile, it’s worthwhile pointing out that his reaction to the U.S. abstention was suspiciously restrained, on the one hand, but tweeted out at the same time that the president-elect was proclaiming a whole new policy on nuclear empowerment that bucked four decades of U.S. restraint and shocked the international arms control community. Even before the Security Council vote, Netanyahu couldn’t hide his jubilation at the impending transfer of power in Washington. He is certain that everything is hunky-dory, that he’s survived the Pharaoh in the White House and that happy days with Trump are just around the corner. But the Security Council decision is a stark reminder of a helpful rule: When Netanyahu’s head is in the clouds, its best to check up on the bomb shelters.

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