Monday, December 26, 2016

Why Bibi's Blame Game May Backfire

The passage of UNSC Resolution 2334 on Friday afternoon, after a US abstention, resulted in open hostility against the Obama administration from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government. The Prime Minister is now deploying the insidious strategy of accusing President Obama of being personally behind the passage of the measure. Absolutely no evidence or credible on the record statement has yet appeared to confirm this bizzare accusation.

Frustration over the resolution itself is warranted to say the least. It references "terrorism" without specific reference to Palestinian terrorist groups. It also calls upon both parties to act on the basis of international humanitarian law (IHL). This rhetoric implies a laughable parity between Israel, which violates IHL in specific ways subject to internal judicial review and penalty, and Palestinian terrorist groups that aim and shoot rockets at kindergartens. Most importantly, the resolution links the issue of East Jerusalem to Israel's broader presence in the West Bank, an issue linkage which is neither useful nor helpful in moving toward a permanent status agreement. In addition to the resolution's text being problematic, the Obama administration is an easy scapegoat. Pinning the resolution on President Obama personally is a way for PM Netanyahu to deflect the broad support this unfortunate resolution obtained across the international community. It deflects from the failed efforts of the Prime Minister's government to pressure the administration into voting no. It confirms the paranoid fears of some Israelis - and many conservative Americans - that the President has it in for Israel despite approving $38 billion dollars in aid to the country over the next 10 years.

Given these absurdities, Prime Minister Netanyahu is giving into the temptation to pursue a bridge burning strategy with a lame-duck President. However, he should approach this issue with caution rather than the current policy of throwing it flagrantly to the wind, for three reasons.

First, Prime Minister Netanyahu is a far better politician than President-elect Trump. He has decades more experience and a proven track record for excellent political savvy. The bombastic campaign to pin UNSC 2334 on President Obama is possible in the current "facts don't matter" environment. But it is below a political virtuoso like Prime Minister Netanyahu and wastes valuable political capital. Additionally, the collapse of a facts-don't-matter environment will hurt PM Netanyahu far before it hurts PEOTUS Trump. In fact, PM Netanyahu risks and is already receiving blowback over the vote. Scapegoating is easy for constituencies to understand but it also deflects important questions about the resolution's passage for which the government will be called upon to answer by Israel's majority.

Second, throwing Israel's lot in with President Trump alienates the majority of American Jews who voted against him and exacerbates the problem of Israel as a partisan issue. Bibi's total alignment with PEOTUS Trump hurts Israel's standing among an American Jewish public that voted against him, and at a time when this critical diaspora community is already concerned about Israel's policies on settlements and the peace process. Managing diaspora relations requires avoiding such polemic antics. Second, and more importantly, by throwing in Israel's lot with Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu is contributing to the framing of Israel as a partisan issue. Liberals and conservatives disagree about why this partisanship has occurred, but all analysts can agree that Netanyahu's statements against Obama and for Trump do little to ease this dangerous polarization of Israel as a political issue. Even if polarization isn't Netanyahu's fault, it's still his problem, and one that his comments over the weekend exacerbate.

Finally, Netanyahu's antics signal that he is not below trashing relationships when it is politically convenient. His erratic behavior places Israel in a dangerous position at a time when the country faces international isolation and delegitimization. The world's leaders have reacted to these antics with shock. Even Donald Trump believes that individual negotiation savvy is critical in politics. Netanyahu is betting Trump will see him as a determined ally, but Trump may conclude that Netanyahu is just an erratic negotiator who would throw him under the bus too. Netanyahu is intending to signal Israel's independence, but he may actually be signalling that he is a risky partner, including for the incoming President.

While the US administration is about to change, Middle East experts and civil servants in Washington will remain the same. These experts are frustrated about the vicious cycle in which Prime Minister Netanyahu asks the US to provide diplomatic cover at the UN only to use this cover to continue settlement building. A sustainable alternative to Prime Minister Netanyahu's current embarrassment of a strategy begins with a genuine commitment to meaningful progress on the ground.


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