Should anything else be expected from Benjamin Netanyahu? Fresh off his jet, the Israeli Prime Minister hit New Orleans running with a loaded freight train - plans from the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee for 1,300 settlement units in East Jerusalem. US State Department officials reacted in pseudo-horror.
Then plans surfaced for another 800 units in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, with final approval due in several months. Meanwhile incremental construction has broken ground across the West Bank. US and Israeli media reports increased their wonder as to the effects on Netanyahu’s upcoming meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - but why would there be any trouble?
This was the plan all along with President Barack Obama out of town.
Speaking before a gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans, Netanyahu didn’t even bother hiding the real motivation for his latest act of bravado. This is a man on a mission of conquest, not peace. Challenging Iran to open warfare and demanding an apology from the international community for believing Hamas’s “propaganda” on the Gaza War, Netanyahu deemed settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a non-issue. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, yet just about everyone outside Netanyahu’s circle agrees that his attitude is a major problem.
"The government talks tough but Israel's interests are being damaged,” Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni said days ago. “They spoke of security, and damaged security. We can't rally the world by constantly saying no. We need to say 'Yes' from time to time too.”
Unlike the Palestinians, who are desperately trying to hang on to the little they have, Netanyahu is intent on going beyond advancing Israel’s interests to the point of antagonizing the Palestinians. He wants to see how far he can push the White House and prove how big he really is. The Israeli Interior Ministry claimed that no connection exists between the settlement announcements and Netanyahu’s visit, just as when Vice President Joe Biden was greeted by a settlement notice. Who is supposed to believe all these “coincidences” are coincidences?
Netanyahu came to America exactly to demonstrate his power over Washington, and by extension Obama. This is a man determined to have it all - an ego on the loose. Livni chastised Netanyahu for not taking the sweet deal offered in September. No, he wants more.
“Why does the Palestinian Authority shirk away from peace?” Netanyahu rhetorically asked. “Perhaps the Palestinians think that they can avoid negotiations. Perhaps they think the world will dictate Palestinian demands to Israel. I firmly believe that that will not happen, because we will not be dictated to, because I am also confident that the friends of Israel led by the United States will not let that happen.”
Though Israel is basically down to one friend in America, Netanyahu’s right that Washington hasn’t let that happened, not yet anyway. The Obama administration, full of old-hand Israeli boosters, has veered towards Netanyahu at every turn of the peace process. Netanyahu, the Israeli media, and often the US media have flipped the conflict’s narrative back on the Palestinians, claiming Obama pressed Israel too hard and threatened Netanyahu’s coalition government. They believe he hasn’t pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas enough.
But they’ve left Abbas on the chopping block for the last year, expired in term, bleeding support, and kept half-alive to do their bidding.
Now, while Obama preaches unity between Americans and Muslims, Netanyahu has come to Washington to cement his lopsided terms in one of the world's bitterest disputes. Obama’s criticism of the latest settlement activity amounted to a lukewarm slap, drowned out by Netanyahu’s declaration that, "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is the capital of the state of Israel.” Notice he meant all of Jerusalem. This is an exceptional two-for-one, morphing his settlement retort into additional demands while suppressing any precondition from the Palestinians.
"We expect of the Palestinians that they will adhere to their obligation to renew direct peace talks in earnest without prior obligations," Netanyahu said in reference to threats of UN circumvention. "All attempts to sidestep direct negotiations through international bodies will not move the negotiations in the direction of true and lasting peace between our two peoples, only direct talks."
The finale of Netanyahu’s visit holds nothing good for the Palestinians. Continuing to pulverize the obstacle of settlement construction, Netanyahu will quietly revel in the GOP's victory as he war-councils with Clinton, a staunch Israeli ally who called settlements a secondary issue in relation to borders. Although it’s true that finalizing the borders of both states could end settlement fight, such a sensitive task won’t be accomplished through the current imbalance of power.
Clinton insisted, "We are working on a non-stop basis with our Israeli and Palestinian friends to design a way forward," but Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told Bloomerg, “This man hasn’t shown any willingness to come closer to us and talk seriously about statehood. He just says, ‘Seduce me, give me what I want, and maybe I’ll think about another partial freeze’.”
Netanyahu has accused Abbas of being an untrustworthy partner, however Netanyahu cannot be trusted to negotiate fairly in the short-term or the long-term. Pursuing the interests of Israel could make him a respected leader, except Netanyahu has triggered widespread doubt within his own government and people as to whether he really means peace. The Palestinians lost their trust long ago.
Perhaps even Obama is losing his.
Although he's spent much of his time in Asia unveiling new economic opportunities, Obama’s return to Washington coincides with a head-on foreign policy collision. The Arab League’s one-month reprieve expires soon and Abbas is scheduled to meet with the council sometime this week, with UN recognition one of many topics on the table. On November 4th chief Saeb Erekat told reporters after meeting with US envoy George Mitchell that Abbas gave the White House “another two or three weeks,” leaving Obama with about two weeks to achieve a breakthrough.
Of course these dates could all be delayed as they’ve already been, but a rough time-table remains in place. And since Obama still has another week in Asia, he’s left with a week or two to organize a realistic policy. If Obama truly believes settlements are illegal by international law he should seal Netanyahu’s concession. Or else he must burn all of his energy into the borders.
Egypt appears willing to help; one senior source told Al-Hayat that Cairo is holding talks with several Arab states to organize an international peace summit. Their objective aims to reaffirm the establishment of a Palestinian state within the June 1967 borders, regardless of the settlement issue.
Obama should hurry too because there’s no telling how long the Palestinians are actually willing to give him. Without any proof of his sincerity, Netanyahu has now embarrassed Obama as he did Biden. Beyond the PLO’s lack of patience, the Egyptian source added that the Israeli government “is not willing to make any goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians.” Even Cairo is running out of tolerance for Netanyahu's antics.
"I'm concerned that we're not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough,” Obama said while celebrating his heritage in Indonesia. Unfortunately many believe with good reason that, nearly two years into his presidency, Obama still hasn’t made the extra effort promised at Cairo University. If he really believes that settlements must freeze he shouldn’t have let Netanyahu and Clinton backdoor him - and he will return to Washington with Israel and Palestine as priority number one.
Otherwise Netanyahu’s behavior means nothing compared to Obama's own reaction.