On Friday afternoon, when senior White House and U.S. State Department officials saw the public diplomacy video Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had posted on YouTube and his Facebook page, they were livid.
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One of Netanyahu’s main arguments was that enlightened countries that oppose Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and call for settlement evacuation as part of a peace agreement are, in effect, supporting what he termed the “ethnic cleansing” of Jews.
Senior administration officials said they viewed the remarks as directly targeting them. There is no other way to interpret the comments, they said.
By the way, someone in Washington found that the source for large swaths of Netanyahu’s remarks and arguments were taken from a 2009 document put together by Frank Luntz, a prominent U.S. political consultant who is identified with the Republican Party and those in the American far-right. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, who is a close associate of the prime minister, worked with Luntz in the early 1990s.
Luntz developed the public diplomacy document for the Israel Project, a pro-Israel organization that in the past was bipartisan, but has in recent years shifted to the right. Page 62 of the document states in part that ethnic cleansing is the best argument in response to the settlement issue when it comes to the U.S. public. In his video, Netanyahu repeated Luntz’s text almost word-for-word.
The Prime Minister's Bureau said that already in a book he had published in 1993, Netanyahu expressed his opposition to the Palestinian and international demand that the West Bank be devoid of Jews. However, in his book, Netanyahu didn’t use the "ethnic cleansing" argument.
For the umpteenth time, senior Obama administration officials were caught by surprise by the fact that Netanyahu has no qualms about attacking them, even during a highly sensitive period when he needs U.S. diplomatic and military assistance.
In recent months alone, the Israeli premier has sought repeated favors from the administration: softening the content of a report by the Middle East Quartet; assistance in halting anti-Israel moves at the United Nations; and killing the French Middle East peace initiative. In addition to all this, there’s the pending agreement to provide nearly $40 billion in military aid to Israel, which is close to being signed.
Senior administration officials view the video as part of a trend that began after the July publication of the Quartet’s report, which criticized Israel but could have been much more critical had it not been for the U.S. insistence on balancing and softening it.
Officials at the White House and State Department have sensed that, since the report, Netanyahu has been ridiculing them and, in the worst case scenario, actually spit in their faces.
The Israeli government is accelerating construction in the settlements, stepping up demolition of Palestinian homes, legalizing illegal West Bank outposts and finishing it off with stinging videos that go viral.
Senior administration officials don’t understand why now, of all times, Netanyahu is coming out with such a media campaign in defense of the settlements.
Why, they wonder, is he taking a gamble on an issue on which there is international consensus against Israel and that, one way or another, could land in the UN Security Council in November, right after the U.S. presidential election? Netanyahu should have avoided such a thing as much as possible, but his conduct is actually inviting a Security Council resolution.
It’s not clear that President Barack Obama would undertake such a step at the Security Council at the end of his term. It’s also not certain if he would refrain from vetoing any settlement resolution, for example. What is clear, however, is that Netanyahu’s video only encourages Obama to take a step in that direction.
The person behind the “ethnic cleansing” video, like other videos Netanyahu has posted recently, is his new foreign media adviser, David Keyes, who has strong ties with the U.S. right wing. Keyes was brought into the Prime Minister’s Office by none other than Ambassador Dermer, whose total identification with the Republican Party is well-known on the U.S. East Coast. In recent weeks, Netanyahu seems preoccupied with filming public diplomacy videos and counting how many “likes” they get on Facebook.
When it comes to the substance of the most recent video, Netanyahu is turning the debate from one about territory to one about rights. But if the Jews have the right to live anywhere in the West Bank, including areas that would be part of the nation-state of the Palestinians, why don’t the Palestinians have the right to return to Haifa or Jaffa and live in the Jewish nation-state? After all, they also claim there was ethnic cleansing in 1948.
Finally, if the evacuation of settlements is ethnic cleansing, as Netanyahu claims, what does that say about his Likud party and him personally? Likud didn’t propose leaving the Yamit settlement in Sinai in Egyptian hands when Israel withdrew, instead setting the precedent of evacuation to the very last Jew.
And it was Likud that evacuated all of the Jews from the Gaza Strip just over a decade ago. Netanyahu voted for the disengagement four times. Does that mean he was also involved in ethnic cleansing? There’s a limit to such demagoguery, even when it comes to Netanyahu.