Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Not to Beat a Dead Horse...

..But essentially that appears to be the policy out of Jerusalem. Likud MP Yossi Peled has accused the Obama administration of interference in Israeli politics. The basis of his criticism, according to the conservative-leaning Jerusalem Post, is as follows:

Yediot Aharonot quoted Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel telling an unnamed Jewish leader: 'In the next four years there is going to be a permanent status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn't matter to us at all who is prime minister [of Israel].' Likud Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled said Tuesday that the statement was inappropriate and was just one of many examples of American interference in Israeli politics since Netanyahu's election."

Firstly, a case can be made that perhaps a country which signed a 30 billion dollar military aid deal with Israel in 2007, making Israel the top recipient of aid from the country, ought to at least have a voice in the Israeli public debate. It would be preferable here not to drag this downward into the Israel Lobby debate, and yes much of that money must be spent on American systems. But for a Likud minister to chastise a statement by an Israeli-American official on Israeli affairs is somewhat hypocritical considering the amount of Israeli military affairs funded by the US in the first place, all of it supported by Likud.

I'll forgo the mudslinging talking points beyond that, I promise.

The real story here is not the comments made by a minor member of Likud, but rather the Obama administration's wisdom in to continue pushing Israel on settlement expansion. The elegance of the strategy is that expansion becomes only as big a deal as Likud makes it. While Obama's Middle East focus has been mostly on his upcoming speech in Cairo, Likud has been smoking at the ears for over a week now. However, the more statements it makes, the weaker it looks.

What is important to consider, then, is the play Netanyahu is making. Is he playing party politics? If a party wanted to appear strong, accusing the US of trying to topple it seems like a strange policy line. But there are a few cases in which it would make sense. Consider the following hypotheses:

H01) If the decline were inevitable. Blaming the US for the fall would shift blame off Likud. However, it doesn't appear that Netanyahu is in imminent danger of a vote of no confidence, so this is probably not the case in the short-term, though certainly in the long term it may very well be.

H02) If Netanyahu were trying to intimidate Obama out of questioning government policy. This is clearly an objective of the right-wing government taking on a left-wing US administration. But it doesn't make sense to hardline against a president with wide popularity in both the US (and among Jews as well) and Europe. Netanyahu would do much better to demonstrate to the US that it is in the American interest not to alienate Likud.

H03) Decision making in Israel is happening through a prism, or at least a different prism than the one policy makers in Washington are using. The Israeli public is very much suspicious of Obama and his policies. Therefore, it would make sense for an Israeli politician to hardline against Obama for domestic political gain.

Consider the correct answer a combination of B and C. Netanyahu is trying to hardline against the Obama administration in order to strengthen his domestic constituency. But someone with Netanyahu's savvy of American politics must also realize that Obama also has no interest in alienating the Israeli government. Even if Obama is willing to pay this political capital, he will be paying in the currency of conservative Jewish votes. AIPAC's description of the May 18th Obama/Netanyahu meeting in Washington is dead silent on the issue of settlement freezing. While AIPAC would say this is because highlighting the dispute is unhelpful to promoting the cause of a strong US-Israel alliance, opinion within AIPAC is likely mixed at the office vis-a-vis Obama's Israel policy in general.

Ultimately, Netanyahu might understand that while he cannot win on this issue, he can make the experience extremely unpleasant for Washington, making Obama reluctant to press more serious issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state, refugees, or the status of Jerusalem. And in the meantime he can continue to strengthen settlements on the ground in order to shift reality as much in his favor as possible before any final status agreement.


1) Gil Hoffman, "Likud: Obama is Meddling in Israeli Politics,"
Jerusalem Post, June 2, 2009.

2) Steven Erlanger, "Israel to Get $30 Billion in Military Aid from US,"
New York Times, August 16, 2007.

3) "U.S., Israel Reaffirm Alliance, Focus on Common Goals,"
American Israel Public Affairs Committee, May 2009.

4) Eric Fingerhut, "Groups Silent in Face of Obama Calls for Settlement Freeze,"
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, June 2, 2009.

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