In opposing Obama, Netanyahu played a risky hand, seems to have won
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Analysis

In opposing Obama, Netanyahu played a risky hand, seems to have won

Six weeks before Inauguration Day, doomsday predictions about shattered relations and the outgoing president’s wrath striking Israel at the Security Council appear erroneous

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In less than 45 days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to finally rest assured that he won what might have been the riskiest political poker match of his career.

On January 20 — Inauguration Day — President Barack Obama will exit the world stage, and with him the specter of vindictive action against the Israeli government. When Donald Trump ascends to the presidency, Netanyahu will no longer have to worry about a backlash from Washington for vociferously opposing the Iran nuclear deal or for expanding Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Six weeks is a long time, in which a lot can still happen. But as things look now, Netanyahu’s confrontational approach to the outgoing administration — which helped him domestically, but which critics deemed a dangerous gamble on crucial US support — played out in his favor.

Obama could still decide to make a last-ditch effort to cement his legacy on the peace process, either by backing a Palestine-related resolution at the UN Security Council or by some other means.

The so-called Regulation Bill seeking to legalize Israeli outposts in the West Bank, which passed Monday in a preliminary reading in the Knesset, might provide the White House with an excuse to support a move in the Palestinian arena or initiate some other punitive measure.

But the chances of that happening appear increasingly slim. Several senior US officials have recently indicated that in all likelihood there will be no move on the Palestinian front before Obama leaves office. A Security Council resolution or a presidential speech about the possible framework of a peace deal had been discussed in the White House before November 8, but after the election and Trump’s surprising victory, that idea has all but vanished.

Addressing the Saban Forum in Washington on Sunday, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry did not completely rule out supporting a move at the UN, but he also promised that the US will continue its longstanding policy of vetoing one-sided resolutions attacking Israel.

Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Saban Forum in Washington DC on December 4 2016. (Ralph Aswang, via JTA)
Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Saban Forum in Washington, December 4 2016. (Ralph Aswang, via JTA)

“We have always stood against any imposition of a, quote, ‘final status solution,’ and against any resolution that is unfair and biased against Israel, and we will continue,” he said. “If it’s biased and unfair and a resolution calculated to delegitimize Israel, we’ll oppose it. Obviously, we will.”

That does not sound like someone who is about to slap Israel over the head with a hostile move regarding the peace process.

Kerry’s withering criticism of Netanyahu’s right-wing, settlement-advancing coalition seemed more like a final rant by a frustrated diplomat citing reasons to explain his failure, rather than a veiled hint to the Israeli public by a scheming politician ahead of a nasty surprise at the UN.

If this assessment is correct and the outgoing administration does not take any steps on the Palestinian front, Netanyahu can congratulate himself for having a played a very risky hand for years but eventually coming out on top.

US President Barack Obama, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. AFP/ SAUL LOEB)
US President Barack Obama, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, November 9, 2015. AFP/ Saul Loeb)

 

The personal relationship between Netanyahu and Obama has been fraught from the very beginning. In 2012, skeptics predicted that the newly re-elected president, now free of electoral concerns, would take revenge on the Israeli leader who had notoriously lectured him in the Oval Office about the impossibility of defending the pre-1967-lines.

That didn’t happen. During his subsequent visit to Israel, in March 2013, Obama seemed keen to open a new page and showered praise on the Israeli people and even their leader, his “friend Bibi.”

Then along came the nuclear pact with Iran, advanced by six world powers led by the US. While other states in the Middle East who were equally unhappy about the deal did not air their criticism publicly, Netanyahu took a strategic decision to vocally and forcefully attack the agreement from every stage imaginable.

In early 2015, at the height of controversy, Netanyahu defied the administration’s explicit wish and accepted the Republicans’ invitation to lay out his criticism in front of a joint meeting of both houses of US Congress. The speech, delivered two weeks before the Israeli elections, gave Netanyahu the perfect stage to portray himself as an eloquent and fearless defender of Israel who does not hesitate to antagonize the world’s only superpower for the good of his country. Critics argued that by angering the US government, he was gambling with Israel’s security. But that did not seem to hurt him at the polls.

Many analysts — this writer included — warned that Netanyahu’s brazen attack on Obama’s most cherished foreign policy project, delivered in perfect English and on the president’s home turf, had the potential to seriously damage America’s bipartisan support for Israel and would not go unpunished.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

Before the Iran deal was finalized, US officials sought to calm Israel’s vigorous criticism by offering a generous upgrade to the existing military financial assistance package. Many Israelis, realizing that the fight against the Iran deal was hopeless since six world powers really wanted it, urged Netanyahu to make the best of it and try to negotiate a handsome increase in defense aid. They argued that once the agreement was signed and sealed, a vengeful administration, exhausted from staving off Israel’s unrelenting criticism, would be less magnanimous. But Netanyahu reasoned that accepting more money from Washington at that stage would be interpreted as a tacit approval of the Iran nuclear pact.

On September 14, more than a year after the Iran deal was signed, the US pledged $38 billion for the next 10 years in security assistance to the Jewish state (largely to be spent in the US, it should be noted) — more than half of what America gives to the entire world.

We might never know if Israel could have obtained an even better deal had Netanyahu toned down his public opposition to the Iran agreement. Some observers noted that, given the fine print, the new memorandum of understanding marked only a relatively small increase compared to the current one, which elapses in late 2018. But it’s a fact that the new memorandum — which comes out to more than $10.4 million per day — is the highest-ever sum given to any country in the history of the United States.

The signing of the US-Israel military aid deal in the State Department on September 14, 2016 (Israeli Embassy, Washington)
The signing of the US-Israel military aid deal in the State Department on September 14, 2016 (Israeli Embassy, Washington)

Some pundits argued at the time that Obama was so forgiving and generous only because he wanted to portray the Democrats as a pro-Israel party ahead of the November 8 presidential election. He needed Hillary Clinton to win so that her Republican opponent would not undo his landmark achievements such as the healthcare reform or the Iran deal. But, some observers warned, once the election was over, a lame duck Obama, now unhindered by political considerations, would likely channel his pent-up anger into an anti-Israel move at the Security Council.

The remaining six weeks will show whether that prediction will also turn out wrong. In light of Trump’s victory, and the assumption that he would walk back any Obama-led initiative on the peace process, it appears more and more unlikely that the outgoing administration would spent its last weeks getting bogged down in another fight over the Middle East.

Donald Trump vowing to support Israel in a video debuted in Jerusalem, Oct. 26, 2016. (Screenshot from YouTube)
Donald Trump vowing to support Israel in a video debuted in Jerusalem, Oct. 26, 2016. (Screenshot from YouTube)

To be sure, Trump’s perceived inclination to allow Israel unlimited settlement expansion may yet prove a headache for Netanyahu back at home. His rivals from the far-right Jewish Home party will demand a construction boom, and the prime minister — who professes to believe in a two-state solution — could find himself hard-pressed to explain why he does not move to annex parts of the West Bank.

Jerusalem will also have to worry about the incoming president’s projected rapprochement with Russia — which could mean allowing Moscow a free hand to support its allies in Tehran and Damascus and thus strengthening Hezbollah.

And yet, in the big picture, it seems that after Inauguration Day even critics will have to admit that the doomsday predictions about tattered US-Israel relations and Obama’s wrath striking the Jewish state at the Security Council all failed to materialize.

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