by Mitchell Plitnick
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the United States has ended in an unprecedented failure. On the Palestinian front, the Iranian front and the domestic US front, Netanyahu’s efforts last week ran badly aground. Let’s review the categories.
Netanyahu himself illustrated his greatest failure: his attempt to divert the conversation about Iran by making a big show of intercepting a ship carrying rockets, ostensibly, according to Israel, headed for the Gaza Strip. Bemoaning the lack of global outrage that he had hoped would sabotage the talks between Iran and world powers on the nuclear issue, Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet upon his return that: “”The goal of seizing the arms ship was to expose Iran’s true face. I say this in order to bring it to the attention of Ms. Ashton, who is now visiting Tehran, and I wish to ask her whether she asked her hosts about the shipment of weapons to terrorist organizations.”
In fact, there are very serious questions about the incident that are not being raised. It may be best that they’re not, because it is a reflection of the minor impact the incident has thus far had on the talks with Iran. The timing of the Israeli intercept was obviously staged to coincide with Netanyahu’s visit to the US to speak at the annual AIPAC conference and to meet with US President Barack Obama. As Amir Rappaport points out, the operation was being planned for months and was carried out far outside of Israeli waters, so the timing was no accident.
The plan fails in its very conception, though. At no point did Iran agree to stop its support for Hezbollah and Hamas in order to pursue these talks, nor did anyone expect them to. But other questions can be raised here as well. Was this, as Netanyahu alleges, Iran showing its “true face” as it masquerades behind the apparent moderation of Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif or was it, as many observers suspect, an attempt by Iranian hardliners to undermine the efforts of the moderates? Indeed, there is some question as to whether the weapons were even intended for Gaza.
It is also odd that weapons from Syria are brought to Iran to be smuggled all the way back to Gaza; the point of the Iran-Syria connection is for such flows to run in the opposite direction, although this could, perhaps, be explained by the ongoing civil war in Syria. In part, that explanation is connected to increased Israeli surveillance of Syrian munitions. That, however, raises the question of why Iran, knowing how closely Israel is watching Syria, would engage in such an operation now.
There are many questions about this incident, not the least of which is the veracity of Israel’s version of events, absent any proof they have made public about the weapons’ destination; they could have been heading for Hamas, to Islamic Jihad (as Israel claims) in Gaza, to anti-government militias in Egypt, to groups in Sudan… There is a lot here that is unclear at best in the Israeli version of events, although certainly nothing to prove that any part of it is untrue.
But what is clear is that the response from the United States and Europe is considerably less than Netanyahu had hoped for. No one believes this shows Iran’s “true face” because no one ever believed that engagement on the nuclear issue by itself was going to change Iran’s position and policy vis–à–vis Israel. What can do that, as Zarif has strongly indicated, is an agreement that the Palestinians clearly accept. So, where are we with that?
Palestinians and the Kerry peace plan
Netanyahu didn’t have much to say about peace with the Palestinians, but what little he did say was a clear attempt to negate any possibility of success on the part of US Secretary of State John Kerry. His very first remark to the fawning crowd at the AIPAC conference was a greeting “from Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people.” Not surprisingly, this did not sit well outside the hall of sycophants at AIPAC. His only other substantive statement was a call on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” something neither Jews nor Israelis can even agree to a definition of and that everyone knows is a non-starter for Abbas.
This demand is a threadbare attempt to get the Palestinians to acknowledge, before an agreement, that they have no claim to a return of refugees (fair for Israel to try to win in talks if they want, but unreasonable to demand as a precondition, as Israel generally has), that Palestinian citizens of Israel must be content with second-class status and most of all, that the Zionist historical narrative is more legitimate than the Palestinian one. No leader of any people would ever agree to such a thing, and Netanyahu is well aware of this.
But outside of the lock-step supporters of Israel in AIPAC and their fellow travelers to the right of that organization, no one is buying into this demand even though its crucial for Netanyahu. For months now, it has been getting clearer and clearer that Kerry’s efforts were likely to fail and much of what both Netanyahu and Abbas have been doing and saying has been geared toward escaping blame, especially US blame, for this likely failure. Bibi needs the demand for recognition of a “Jewish state” to be seen as reasonable, but he’s not winning the battle.
“The level of mistrust is as large as any level of mistrust I’ve ever seen, on both sides,” Kerry told a House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday. With Netanyahu now back in Israel and Abbas slated to come to Washington next week, this is a clear statement of pessimism from the one man who, whatever the reality of the talks, has insisted on maintaining a show of optimism. The prospect of failure is becoming more certain, but thus far, Netanyahu has failed to gain the upper hand in escaping blame, as Ehud Barak did with Bill Clinton in 2000.
The US domestic audience
On the US front, the situation is unprecedented. The good wishes most US citizens hold for Israel remain steady, indicating the same widespread support for Israel’s security that has always existed. But the war-weary United States is withdrawing into itself and the diminishing support for Israeli policies is a reflection of this. However, that’s far from the only cause of the new situation Israel finds itself in.
Relationships between Israeli leaders and US presidents have varied. Barack Obama is not the first to have a rocky relationship with an Israeli Prime Minister. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush did not always get on well with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, respectively. On the other hand, Bill Clinton was practically a groupie for Yitzhak Rabin and had a very warm relationship with his political successor, Ehud Barak. Similarly, George W. Bush called Ariel Sharon a mentor, and continued to get along famously with Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. Yet through all these relationships, bad and good, Israel always maintained warm ties with both major US parties. AIPAC prided itself for decades on its bi-partisan reach.
Netanyahu has severely damaged that bipartisanship. From his deep ideological connection to US neoconservatives, to his barely hidden meddling in US electoral politics, he has alienated Democrats. Those Democrats remain dedicated to Israel’s security, or, in some cases, to AIPAC-directed campaign contributions. But with his repeated attempts to draw the United States into deepening conflict and possibly war with Iran, Netanyahu has forced Democrats to choose between their constituents and AIPAC. That’s a battle AIPAC would never win, but Netanyahu seemed to believe that AIPAC could do anything. For all those who accused John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of demonizing “Jewish power” in their book on the Israel lobby, it seems it was Netanyahu who imagined an omnipotent lobby for his country in the US and wildly overestimated their power.
While Bibi spoke to AIPAC and other US audiences, article after article — in the Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, the Washington Examiner, Israel’s YNet, and other sites — proclaimed AIPAC’s diminishing influence. It really isn’t surprising. Bibi has tried to increase US involvement in the Middle East at a time when most in the US, despite being willing to continue to fund Israel and help it out at the United Nations, want to reduce our involvement in the region. And, while Bibi can talk the talk of the US right-wing, most Jews in the United States are liberals. With voices who support the rights of Palestinians as equal to Israelis gaining prominence, US Jews are looking for ways to reconcile their liberalism with their support of Israel in a way they have not had to in the past. Bibi is trying to push them back to the old narratives, and they aren’t working.
What if Netanyahu fails?
That’s a reasonable question. Right now, there is no serious challenger to Netanyahu on the horizon, but that can change if his bungling of the US relationship becomes more of a problem for the average Israeli. The challenge could come from the right, as Avigdor Lieberman is trying to position himself to make a run at the Prime Minister’s office. But if failure with the Palestinians and with the US is at issue, Lieberman wouldn’t be the answer, and no one more moderate than Bibi is currently poised to make any kind of challenge.
Still, it is now much more likely that the peace talks are going to collapse at the end of April. Netanyahu won’t be directly blamed by the Obama administration, but if they do think it is his fault they can easily communicate that in Israel and Europe, with profound consequences for Netanyahu. Meanwhile, more and more of Europe is turning against Israel’s increasingly right-wing and rejectionist policies. That could cost Bibi dearly.
Failure might not only harm AIPAC, but it could seriously harm more moderate groups in the US like J Street. If the two-state solution appears unrealistic, J Street will have little to hang their hats on. And without the moderate alternative, US support, apart from the annual military aid, is likely to diminish as well. Unfortunately, without a Palestinian strategy to take advantage of this changing state of affairs (beginning with unifying their body politic), it’s not going to lead to better days. And such does not seem to be forthcoming.
Bibi’s gone back home now. But his trip here was notable for how much was at stake and how badly he did with it.