Why Netanyahu refuses to ‘turn the other cheek’ in his response to the UN defeat
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AnalysisFor the PM, there is no damage Obama could do that Trump could not undo

Why Netanyahu refuses to ‘turn the other cheek’ in his response to the UN defeat

PM believes the carrot of Israeli cyber, intel and anti-terror expertise is so attractive that nations will ignore concerns about the Palestinians. He's using the stick to make plain such expertise will be denied to those he sees harming Israel

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum on March 22, 2013, in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images/JTA)
US President Barack Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum on March 22, 2013, in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images/JTA)

One of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, compiled by the medieval philosopher Maimonides, reads as follows: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and although he may tarry, I wait every day for his coming.”

Replace “the Messiah” with “a drastic increase in Israel’s global popularity,” and you’ll get the first article of faith from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy gospel.

It is his ironclad belief, despite significant evidence to the contrary, that Israel’s standing in the world is terrific and will imminently become even better that lies behind the array of dramatic punitive steps he took this week against the 14 countries who supported Friday’s anti-settlement resolution at the UN Security Council, and the one who abstained — the United States.

Netanyahu’s deep-seated conviction that the world no longer much cares about the settlements, or Palestinian statehood, but is extremely thirsty for Israel’s high-tech prowess and anti-terrorism know-how, has been undented by even the most crushing diplomatic defeats.

It was not shattered by the fact that the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of granting the “State of Palestine” observer status in 2011, or that UNESCO continually passes resolutions that ignore the Jewish people’s ties to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or that, as a general rule, large majorities of the world’s countries still support the Palestinian cause and vote against Israel.

The electronic screen at the UN General Assembly showing the votes according to country (photo credit: screen capture UNGA livestream)
The electronic screen at the UN General Assembly showing the votes according to country (photo credit: screen capture UNGA livestream)

In September, Netanyahu told the General Assembly that “Israel’s diplomatic relations are undergoing nothing less than a revolution” and that the UN’s automatic anti-Israel majority will be a thing of the past less than 10 years from now.

By late December, that very same General Assembly had passed 20 blatantly anti-Israeli resolutions, all with overwhelming majorities. A whopping 162 countries voted for Resolution A/C.4/71/L.14, for instance, which refers to the Temple Mount only by its Islamic name, “Haram al-Sharif.” Seven countries opposed and eight abstained.

Resolution A/C.4/71.L.13, which asserts that Israeli settlements in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory including East Jerusalem and in the occupied Syrian Golan are illegal and an obstacle to peace,” received 165 yes votes, six no votes and seven abstentions.

Friday’s Security Council vote on Resolution 2334, which condemns Israel’s settlement enterprise, was a particularly resounding slap in the face. The Obama administration, which had vetoed a similar text in 2011, abstained, and that abstention allowed the first anti-Israel resolution to be passed in the Security Council in nearly a decade.

Netanyahu regularly slams the UN, but his reaction this time was unusually ferocious. He summoned a dozen ambassadors for dressing-downs, canceled foreign aid to Senegal and Angola, disinvited the Ukrainian prime minister, declined meetings with the leaders of China and Great Britain. He also instructed his ministers to curtail travel to the countries that voted in favor of the resolution, announced a “reassessment of all of our contacts with the UN,” ordered funding cuts to various UN agencies, and vowed that “there’s more to come.”

In addition, after personally calling in the US ambassador, he also accused US President Barack Obama of collusion and betrayal, and likened him to the “deeply hostile” president Jimmy Carter. In unprecedentedly harsh language, a senior Israeli official said the resolution Washington allowed to pass provided a “tailwind for terror and boycotts.” His ambassador in the US went even further: “And what is outrageous is that the United States was actually behind that (UNSC) gang-up,” said Ron Dermer.

In this photo provided by the United Nations, members of the United Nations Security council vote at the United Nations headquarters on December 23, 2016, in favor of condemning Israel for its practice of establishing settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In a striking rupture with past practice, the US allowed the vote, not exercising its veto. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)
In this photo provided by the United Nations, members of the United Nations Security council vote at the United Nations headquarters on December 23, 2016, in favor of condemning Israel for its practice of establishing settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In a striking rupture with past practice, the US allowed the vote, not exercising its veto. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)

But his core conviction that a change is going to come abides. As he asserted in an address on Saturday night, Friday’s Security Council vote will prove to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the turning point that will actually “accelerate” Israel’s triumphal elevation among the family of nations.

“The resolution that was passed at the UN yesterday is part of the swan song of the old world that is biased against Israel, but, my friends, we are entering a new era,” he declared, predicting that the revolution “will happen much sooner than you think.”

And in this brave new world in which all nations need what only the Jewish state can offer, he vowed, “there is a much higher price for those who try to harm Israel, and that the price will be exacted not only by the US [under the Trump administration], but by Israel as well.”

‘Those who work against us will lose — because there will be a diplomatic and economic price for their actions against Israel’

Some pro-Palestinian activists accused Netanyahu of threatening violence, but that is not what he had in mind. Rather, the prime minister was warning the nations of the world that they won’t benefit from Israeli high-tech innovation and anti-terrorism expertise if they don’t change their voting pattern vis-a-vis Israel.

“Those who work with us will benefit because Israel has much to give to the countries of the world. But those who work against us will lose — because there will be a diplomatic and economic price for their actions against Israel,” he said.

Netanyahu’s message is clear: Israel will no longer be the world’s punching bag. From now on, countries will have to choose whether they’re with Israel or against Israel. If they support us in international forums, we’re happy to do business. If they insist on voting against us, they will have to live without all the vital goodies — the cyberdefense skills, the intelligence on terrorism, and other such vital modern commodities — that the startup nation has to offer.

Misunderstanding Netanyahu

Critics charge that Netanyahu’s punitive measures against countries that supported the anti-settlements resolution are wildly disproportionate. Even Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, his own Likud colleague, said Tuesday that she would have not curtailed contacts with other countries but rather engaged with them to explain Israel’s point of view.

Some argue that Netanyahu’s was a deliberately exaggerated response aimed at scoring political points at home by portraying himself as a fearless leader willing to take on the world to protect Israel’s just cause.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a conference in the northern city of Ma'alot on December 26, 2016. (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a conference in the northern city of Ma’alot on December 26, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Others theorize that he is trying to keep the Security Council vote in the headlines in order to deflect attention from new developments in a probe into alleged corruption. Indeed, Netanyahu’s squabble with the world, especially with the US, has unsurprisingly received vastly more airtime than a report that the police might soon open a full-blown criminal investigation against him over alleged bribe-taking and aggravated fraud.

But those familiar with the way Netanyahu sees Israel’s place in the 21st century know that his ostensibly exaggerated steps against Senegal and Spain, Ukraine, China, France, Britain, the US, et al, are not merely political maneuvers meant to hijack the headlines for a few days but form an integral part of his overall foreign policy doctrine.

Carrots and sticks

There is “no alternative to a determined response,” he said Monday, “because it is, in effect, creating the basis for a different approach in the future.” Not only will Israel’s relations with the international community not be harmed by his harsh reaction, he added, but “over time they will only improve, because the nations of the world respect strong countries that stand up for themselves and do not respect weak ingratiating countries that bow their heads… Under my leadership Israel is a strong and proud nation… Israel is a country with national pride and we will not turn the other cheek.”

It is Netanyahu’s unfaltering belief that the carrot of Israeli technology and intelligence assistance is attractive and important enough for the world to embrace the Jewish state while ignoring the festering Palestinian problem. But, he evidently also feels, nations will only change longstanding, deeply ingrained anti-Israel voting patterns at the UN if they get the stick when they misbehave.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on February 21, 2016 in Amman, Jordan. (US State Department)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on February 21, 2016 in Amman, Jordan. (US State Department)

This philosophy — that the world will respect you only when you project strength — also explains Netanyahu’s seemingly self-sabotaging attacks against the outgoing US administration.

US President Barack Obama still has more than three weeks in office, during which he could cause Israel much damage. Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to lay out parameters for a two-state solution, which might be adopted by the participants of the January 15 international peace conference in Paris and could, sooner than later, be given a stamp of approval by the Security Council.

So why would Netanyahu and his team launch unprecedentedly bitter attacks against Obama rather than try to productively engage him? Since the White House appears eager to leave a lasting footprint regarding the peace process, why wouldn’t Israel employ quiet diplomatic channels to avert further damage rather than seeking further public confrontation?

Trump time

One part of the answer lies in the Netanyahu’s total confidence in Donald Trump’s pro-Israel bona fides. For the first time in his many years as prime minister, Netanyahu will get to work with a Republican president — a man who continues to assert that he will move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and who has appointed Orthodox Jews who support the settlements to key positions dealing with the peace process.

There is no damage Obama could do that Trump could not undo, Netanyahu seems to think (even though it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to overturn Security Council resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian question).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The other part of the answer has to do with Netanyahu’s credo that Israel has to project power and strength, even when it has lost the battle. Rather than walk away, accept defeat and discreetly attempt damage control, the prime minister prefers to go down guns blazing.

This thinking also informed his strategy on the Iran nuclear agreement. Once he realized the world was headed toward approving the deal, he preferred to openly antagonize his opponents — in this case the Obama administration, which spearheaded the pact with Tehran — rather than acquiesce or attempt last-ditch efforts to at least soften the blow.

“Enough of this Diaspora-think,” Netanyahu said Monday. “I tell you that there is no diplomatic wisdom in being ingratiating.”

The history books, which are always in the back of Netanyahu’s mind, have duly noted both the Israeli prime minister’s vociferous opposition to the Iran deal and, now, to UN Security Council Resolution 2334, but the jury on his diplomatic wisdom is still out.

Israelis would be all too happy to see a savior arrive to bring redemption from the UN’s anti-Israel obsessions, the threat posed by Iran, and other global challenges. Soon enough, we will all see whether President-elect Trump can provide the dramatic impact the prime minister anticipates. Soon enough, we will all see whether the prime minister’s prophecy of a new, thriving era of ties with the nations of the world is coming true, or if Israel under the insistently non-ingratiating Netanyahu is damned to growing international isolation.

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