WASHINGTON - Benjamin Netanyahu got a prize from Barack Obama this week: Israel's admission into the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the OECD. "Israel has joined the elite club of the world's economies," crowed the prime minister, who clearly appreciates the significance of Israel's acceptance into the prestigious organization, viewing it as an international endorsement of his economic policy.
But with all due respect to the Netanyahu reforms, without Obama's assistance, Israel would have been left out in the cold. In the past weeks, the American administration worked to convince the countries that opposed Israel's admission, primarily Turkey, to vote in favor. The announcement of the start of "proximity talks" between Israel and the Palestinians helped persuade the fence-sitters that the prime minister was deserving of a reward this time.
The Obama administration has been trying in recent weeks to shower Israel with shows of affection the likes of which haven't been seen for some time. Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently got the red-carpet treatment in Washington and 40 minutes with the president - in striking contrast to the awkward and unphotographed meeting between Obama and Netanyahu two months ago.
Meanwhile, administration officials have been giving speeches before Jewish organizations about the unshakable American commitment to Israel and its security. Furthermore, the discussions currently underway about the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are expected to conclude with American lip service that will leave the Israeli policy of "ambiguity" unchanged. Next week, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will come to Israel to celebrate his son's bar mitzvah. One may surmise that he will also have a "private" meeting with Netanyahu and other senior figures. And more gestures are on the way.
After the harsh rebuke Israel got from Obama over the Ramat Shlomo housing crisis during Vice President Joe Biden's visit in March, these latest caresses have been a lot more pleasant. Israeli officials say that Netanyahu has won a victory, even if it's only temporary. The turning point in the crisis, they say, was the public criticism voiced by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, a prominent figure in the president's party, and a Jew, about the administration's treatment of Israel.
Senior Israel and American officials refuse to elaborate on the content of the ultimatum that the administration gave Netanyahu as punishment for the humiliation of Biden, or on the prime minister's response. They view the fact that the details were not leaked as evidence of good working relations between the two countries, despite the dispute. According to one senior Israeli source, the present administration does not include anyone truly hostile to Israel, as was the case with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Carter administration, or James Baker in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Netanyahu's people - Ambassador Michael Oren, National Security Advisor Uzi Arad and attorney Isaac Molho - enjoy free access to administration officials.
But, even if the style has changed and softened, the content has not. Obama is determined to foster a change in America and adapt its foreign policy to the 21st century, and this requires him to close old cases that have been dragging on without resolution since the last century, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He's tired of it, the world is fed up with this nuisance, and he wants to put an end to it. Or at least achieve an accord that eluded his predecessors. For this he needs Netanyahu.
And herein lies the problem. No one in the administration has any idea what Netanyahu wants or what his aims really are. The White House recognizes the prime minister's political strength. He has no rivals threatening to take over his seat and no scandals hovering over him. He crushed Moshe Feiglin in the Likud vote. The Americans also understand that Netanyahu could persuade the Israeli public to back any agreement that he signs. But this strength is causing Netanyahu to sit on the fence. If life is so good, why mess with it?
Here's why: By summer's end, Netanyahu-Obama relations will be put to a harder test than ever before. The settlement freeze will expire in tandem with the end of the proximity talks, the UN General Assembly will convene in New York, attended by major world leaders, and the American government will try to advance the new package of sanctions against Iran. Obama will expect the freeze to be extended, which means that Netanyahu could be pushed up against a wall.
What will he do? Will he resume building in the settlements, as the rightist ministers promise he will - or find a pretext to continue the moratorium? And how will he convince his coalition to support that? Direct talks with the Palestinians will seem like a good justification for a further freeze, but Netanyahu will have to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas something more, and this could cost him a confrontation with the right.
Aggressive American sanctions against Iran seem like a more convenient enticement for Netanyahu, who could persuade his "forum of seven" that this important effort against the Iranian nuclear program mustn't be hindered. But it's doubtful that Obama is capable of getting such sanctions off the ground. And American officials are worried that flimsier measures will provoke Israel to rev up its engines in readiness for a military strike on Iran.
But along with the risk of a crisis, there is also an opportunity here. The expectations for the proximity talks are zero, which leaves room for a diplomatic initiative to take over the agenda. Netanyahu is torn. Ehud Barak, Ambassador Oren, cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser and others say that he must take the lead rather than be dragged along. The most likely initiative would be one that establishes a Palestinian state with temporary borders, similar to the plan put forward Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz. The Palestinians are opposed, but why shouldn't Israel be the one to display some openness and let them be perceived as the obstructionists? The Obama administration is ready to listen to the idea of a state with temporary borders, if it is possible to ensure that this is only a stage on the way to a final status accord.
Another camp in Israel, headed by Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, would rather focus on the Syrian channel, but this idea has no traction in Washington at the moment.
The opposing camp, personified by political adviser Ron Dermer and Netanyahu's right-wing partners, is calling on the prime minister to wait for the Congressional elections in November. The Republicans are expected to win a majority in the House of Representatives, and the offended president, who will be starting to fight for his own reelection, will go easy on Israel. This approach says an excuse needs to be found for extending the freeze until November; to remain standing during yet another round and then to win the fight on points and remain in power without ceding a millimeter.
The prime minister sees the idea of an interim agreement in the West Bank as the only way out of the freeze, but is hesitant to support it publicly. A few of his advisers are warning him that if support for Israel is perceived as part of a Republican agenda, the Democrats will turn their backs on Israel. The end of summer is not all that far off, the crisis is looming and no one yet knows what Netanyahu will decide. But why should he be in any hurry to stake out a position when he can savor the brand-new OECD membership card just a little longer?
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