Illegal outpost in West Bank
Photo courtesy of Peace Now
Nahum Barnea
It’s not the settlements, stupid
Obama wanted Netanyahu’s help with Arab world, but Bibi didn’t deliver

Most Israelis find it difficult to comprehend how in the middle of spring, on the way to or from the barbecue, a clash suddenly emerged between Israel and the United States.


Why do the Americans care that someone is building a villa in Kedumim or a kindergarten in Shavei Shomoron? How could it be that they, most Israelis, forgot about the existence of the settlements a long time ago and are worried about other things, yet the president of the world’s greatest power, who is 8,000 kilometers away, is unwilling to tolerate another small mikvah in Yitzhar or another tiny ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Beitar Ilit?


It’s not about the settlements, stupid. It’s not about the settlements.


Netanyahu understands it, and this is why he is so frightened. This is what emerges from the stories of people who spoke with him in recent days. He is anxious, sweating, and on the brink of panic. The panics of politicians are usually a target for ridicule, especially in respect to Netanyahu. People expect the prime minister to display equanimity, show leadership, and overcome.


Regrettably, Netanyahu has good reason to be concerned at this time. He is torn between the interests of his state and the interests of his government. He loves both of them and pledged allegiance to both of them: How can he choose one over the other?


President Obama made it clear from his first week in office that he is determined to turn a new leaf vis-à-vis the Muslim and Arab world. His statements reflected a natural desire to do the opposite of what his predecessor did. This is what Bush did with Clinton’s foreign policies, and this is what other presidents did as well.


In essence, approaching the Arab world is meant to assist the administration in contending with the harsh legacy left for it by the previous administration. The assumption is that the support of Arab and Islamic countries will help America to get out of Iraq and successfully deal with its enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan and with the Iranian nuclear threat. Obama is not adopting this initiative in order to serve an Israeli interest, yet it can have significant benefits for Israel too, particularly on the Iranian question.


Name of the game is survival

The speech Obama will deliver in Cairo Thursday is meant to clear the air and renew the Arab street’s trust in the US. Such speech cannot skip the Palestinian issue. The administration expected, in the most legitimate manner, to get something from Netanyahu on the Palestinian front that it can hold on to. Not a withdrawal or renunciation of rights, but rather, a diplomatic model or a vision. Yet Netanyahu arrived empty-handed and created a vacuum, into which the settlement issue slid in full force.


George Mitchell, who headed the committee that published the Mitchell Report in 2001, is currently Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East. His influence in Washington is great. He has access to the president, the secretary of state, and the leaders of Congress. The Mitchell Report referred to, among other things, a settlement freeze. Sharon, who served as prime minister when the report was published, felt he had no choice but to adopt the conclusions. The Israelis forgot the Mitchell report. Yet Mitchell did not forget.


Moreover, on this front Israel has very few supporters in America. The Jewish organizations have no interest in defending the continuation of the settlement enterprise. The fact is that despite the harsh statements made by Obama, Hillary Clinton, and several Congress members, the Jews have remained silent. In the past we have seen cases where Israeli governments were slammed by US government officials. Yet such silence by the Jews was only seen during the Pollard affair.


Netanyahu arrived empty-handed not because he is dreaming about the Greater Israel, but rather, because he fears that any diplomatic movement would topple his coalition. The name of his game is survival. At the outset of his term in office, Netanyahu said that there issues were at the top of his agenda: Iran, Iran, Iran. Yet had Iran been his top concern, he should have dealt with the Americans differently. It appears that the three issues that dictate his moves are survival, survival, survival.


First published: 06.02.09, 00:20
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