Last week the US government and media lauded Israel’s decision to cooperate with a UN investigation into the Freedom Flotilla raid. Although Israeli opinion was more critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision, the general consensus realized he had no choice. Stonewall here and Israel would have absolutely nothing to stand on going into the pivotal month of September, when Israel’s settlement “freeze” in the West Bank expires and the UN will debate Palestinian statehood.
"We thank both governments (Israeli and Turkish) for the constructive and cooperative spirit they have shown and the Secretary General for his leadership and determination," said Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN.
Seven days later and no one is praising Ban Ki-moon anymore. Only hours after Netanyahu testified to the UN that Turkish decision-making was ultimately to blame, the UN Secretary-General “quashed what he called a rumor” that Israeli soldiers were off limits to questioning. “There was no such agreement behind the scenes,” he claimed, prompting Netanyahu to threaten that Israel won’t cooperate with that level of investigation.
"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes it absolutely clear that Israel will not cooperate with and will not take part in any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldiers," read a statement from his office.
Netanyahu speaks as though he failed to accurately judge the tactical and strategic situation. Testifying that, “Turkey did not see potential friction between Turkish activists and Israel as something that goes against its interests,” reveals either real or feigned ignorance. Although Turkish-Israeli relations have soured, Turkey’s global interests have improved dramatically since the Gaza war. Israel knows and resents this.
And while Netanyahu blames Turkey for setting a trap, why did Israel, the self-proclaimed most advanced and moral army on Earth, allow itself to be so easily provoked? Turkey may have set a trap, but Israel blindly grabbed at the bait and wrecked its image against the rocks. That’s not Turkey’s fault.
The problem for Netanyahu is that he’s stuck in a no-win situation. Cooperation over the flotilla raid offered the chance to relieve international pressure and a long-shot towards avoiding an extended settlement freeze. Conversely, Netanyahu’s own political position demands that he stonewall invasions of Israeli sovereignty. But Israel is out of ways to boost its credibility with Arabs and the West - it cannot continue dictating terms. Run now and there’s no place to hide.
Except, of course, America.
Despite Israel’s obstinate and sometimes combative behavior towards Arab states and the West itself, America’s level of support remains unchanged. The idea that President Barack Obama has toughened on Israelis is a myth borne out of the need to appear pro-Palestinian. While his public rhetoric encourages Palestinian statehood, his actions leave the status quo tilted heavily in Israel’s favor. Washington's latest theory believes that increasing military aid to Israel will help it make "tough choices." Even now Obama's main focus is forcing Palestinians into Israel's terms rather than creating a stable environment for a two-state solution.
Although Israel’s actions have inspired progressively less confidence in Palestinians and Arabs, creating an infertile ground for final-status negotiations, Washington presses ahead with its demand for direct talks. Never-mind that the opportunity to set up direct talks was ignored during indirect talks and that three months have yielded no reason for optimism. Forget that Palestinian public opinion wants direct talks but not on Israel and America’s terms. Obama needs direct talks to save his own flailing image in the Muslim world, even if the conditions aren’t right, but this depresses his popularity even further.
"Now we are facing these pressures,” said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Until now, we did not agree. We may face other pressures that we cannot endure. If that happens, I will study this thing with the leadership and take the appropriate decision... No one can endure the pressure that is being put on us.”
Abbas was likely speaking indirectly to representatives from dozens of Palestinian factions and organizations, which had warned earlier in the day “against succumbing to pressure to open direct talks unconditionally.” A statement claimed that Israel was planning to exploit the negotiations, “to cover up for its practices, including the Judaization of Jerusalem, continued settlement construction and the completion of the racist separation fence.”
They also warned that entering direct talks under the Washington's conditions would “save Israel from the international campaign of boycott and condemnation.” Abbas repeated his and the Arab League's call to the Quartet - US, EU, UN, and Russia - for a settlement freeze and 24 month deadline: “I will immediately go to direct talks because it includes everything I am asking for.”
But Washington is unlikely to bring this pressure to bear on Israel, unless it’s waiting for the very last moment. Philip Crowley, spokesman for the US State Department, went so far as to say of US envoy George Mitchel's latest visit, "We think that what he needs to accomplish can be done with rather quick meetings with both of the leaders." If he comes with a settlement freeze.
Otherwise indirect talks are likely to dead end in September and set the stage for a contentious debate on the region’s future, spun through the turbulence of US Congressional elections in November.
Trapped in this web of events, Netanyahu’s actions in Lebanon begin to take on new life. Clearly Israel felt a great need to remedy its international standing and elicit sympathy from America, which has responded vigorously in its defense. Not only that, Israel needed to trigger the correct instrument of US policy - Congress, its dependable advantage. A lack of progress on the Palestinian front contrasts sharply to Israel’s victory in blocking Lebanon from $100 million in US military aid.
“Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hezbollah influence on the LAF – and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor – I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon,” said House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, a prominent Israeli advocate.
Representative Eric Cantor, another Israeli booster, added, “The LAF’s unprovoked attack on the Israeli defense forces in undisputed Israeli territory demands a sweeping reassessment of how we distribute our foreign aid... For the past few years, the US and the international community looked the other way as the lines between Hizbullah and the Lebanese military and government became blurred. But the days of ignoring the LAF’s provocations against Israel and protection of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon are over.”
Given a lack of progress with the Palestinians and simultaneous political action against Lebanon, the odds that Israel intentionally provoked a conflict to rile up Congress appear high. Although the UN ruled that the controversial tree lies within Israeli territory, it’s easy to imagine this particular piece of Blue Line coming under dispute as Lebanon claims. The UN requested a delay in Israel's operation, indicating the sensitivity of the area. All the while Israeli officials claim that Lebanon used the extra time to set an ambush, making it impossible to believe that Israel didn’t expect a reaction. The political assault began as soon as the border clash ended.
US fallout against Lebanon indicates that Netanyahu was running to his only refuge. How that saves him from the Palestinians is far less certain.