U.S. Dragged Back Kicking and Cursing Into the Netanyahu-Abbas Abyss

Obama administration’s reactions to outbreak of violence colored by enduring resentment over Iran deal and suspicions of Israel’s ultimate motives.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Barack Obama attends a press conference in the East Room of the White House, October 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Barack Obama attends a press conference in the East Room of the White House, October 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Barack Obama needs an Israeli-Palestinian flare-up like a hole in the head. Trapped in Afghanistan, mired in Syria, stumped by Putin, confounded by Iran, worried about Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and what not, the last thing the U.S. president needs right now is a war over the Temple Mount that could serve as a recruitment poster for Islamic State and inflame the Middle East as a whole.

Never mind the very thought that he was going to have to deal once again with nebbish Mahmoud Abbas and nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu.

From the outset, there were clear indications that the administration was in denial. After initial reports of the outbreak of violence and terror, the U.S. buried its head in the sand and prayed that things would blow over without the need for it to get involved. Then Secretary of State John Kerry and his spokesman John Kirby issued a series of hasty statements somewhat divorced from reality that they had to retract within hours; finally, Obama was cornered at a press conference on Friday and his response to was to insinuate that Netanyahu and Abbas had equally failed in containing incitement. The usually keen Kerry will meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday in Berlin with what seems to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Many people in the administration and in the American media – including conservatives and Republicans, who were unusually reticent – appeared unperturbed by what seemed to be the umpteenth bloody chapter in the depressing Israeli-Palestinian saga. Netanyahu’s melodramatic statements about the situation seemed to diminish in the shadow of his apocalyptic overkill over the nuclear deal with Iran. And while Netanyahu had been quick to announce that he was turning the page in relations with Washington, Americans, like Israelis, are quicker to forget their own sins than to forgive the insults of others; their statements about “excessive use of force” and “Israeli terror” reflected the resentment still lingering in Washington while the mortified Israeli reaction highlighted the short memory span of Jerusalem.

Into this mix a new layer of suspicion was added: Just as administration officials were acutely aware, far more than the Israeli public, of the great gap between Netanyahu’s description of the Iran deal as a colossal catastrophe and the much more positive view of Israel’s security establishment, they are now closely monitoring the blatant dissonance between the onslaught of Netanyahu and his ministers against Abbas and the relatively positive reviews of Abbas’ efforts to quell the violence that army and Shin Bet sources have been studiously leaking to the Israeli media.

Some officials are worried that Netanyahu’s assault on Abbas is anything but innocent: in their opinion, the Israeli prime minister may actually be encouraging the Palestinian president’s downfall and his replacement by more extreme leadership, from Hamas on up. In one fell swoop, diplomatic pressure on Israel would evaporate, the international boycott movement could collapse and Israel might even exploit a moment of crisis in order annex parts of the West Bank in which few Palestinians live while turning Palestinian cities into autonomic Bantustans. The IDF, which is loathe to carry the military and financial burden of such ambitions, is trying to preempt them instead.

As he made clear when asked about the situation during his press conference with the President of South Korea on Friday, Obama hasn’t exempted Netanyahu and Israel from responsibility for the volatile situation in Jerusalem, above and beyond the government’s decades of neglect of Palestinians living in Israel’s eternal and undivided capital. Administration officials are alarmed by what seems to be Israeli’s increasingly quick finger on the trigger in stopping suspected terrorists, especially children and teens, whose deaths can be exploited by radicals to inflame Gaza and the West Bank. And just as the U.S. has been hard-pressed in the past to accept Israeli explanations that lowly civil servants are solely responsible for the announcements of massive building projects in settlements that have often enraged and embarrassed U.S. administrations – remember the March 2010 debacle during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit – they are likewise finding it difficult to digest that provocative tours by government ministers of the Temple Mount, calls by coalition Members of the Knesset to upend the status quo, religious edicts by venerated rabbis and public chanting by their disciples to burn down the Muslim mosques in order to rebuild the Jewish temple – that all of these could be going on against Netanyahu’s explicit support or implicit consent.

The administration’s main aim right now is to return the dangerous genie to the bottle that Netanyahu, in their eyes, failed to close in time: They’ve got bigger problems to deal with. For that reason, the U.S. has no patience for the recent French proposals, for example, to place international supervisors on the Temple Mount because these would entail a superfluous argument with Israel and its supporters in Washington and create destabilizing commotion on the ground.

Among people close to the administration there are those who are even toying with the idea of using the crisis as leverage to re-launch some kind of peace process: For now such offers are being greeted with amused sighs of despair. For Obama, one assumes, the thought of having to spend hours on hours with Abbas and Netanyahu in a closed room in pursuit of an elusive breakthrough is enough to send him to the closest calendar to pray that what remains of his time at the White House will go by quickly.

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