Obama versus Netanyahu: this IS a big fucking deal!

By now, everyone who thinks the present confrontation between Pres. Obama and his administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition allies is meaningless, a "charade," or even more ridiculously, a "joke," should be feeling pretty silly. It’s become obvious that not only is this not "no big deal," this is, as one eminent American statesman might put it, "a big fucking deal." It’s still a political crisis between politicians and governments, and not a strategic crisis between countries, and the foundations of the US-Israel special relationship and commitment to Israel’s security are unshaken. But the depth, let alone the reality, of the Obama-Netanyahu crisis of policy and of trust has degenerated very significantly since it erupted during VP Biden’s trip to the region. It is extraordinary that, having been invited to the White House, Netanyahu would need to leave the first, lengthy, meeting, then consult with his entourage, request a second meeting which was also long, and leave without a single word of substance from either side to the public. It’s absolutely obvious that the meetings were tense and unpleasant, and that no agreement was reached.

The outstanding Laura Rozen of Politico today reports: “’Apparently Bibi is very nervous, frantically calling his ‘seven,’ trying to figure out what to do,” one Washington Middle East hand said Wednesday. ‘The word I heard most today was ‘panic.’" This rings exactly true. What other reaction is he supposed to have to being suddenly confronted with an American president who is simply not going to take it anymore and is laying down some very firm conditions? Nathan Gutmann in The Forward lists the following demands supposedly placed before Netanyahu by Sec. Clinton during her apparently angry 45 minute phone call following the Biden fiasco:
Cancel the Ramat Shlomo building plan for 1,600 units, which sparked the crisis.
Expand Israel’s 10-month moratorium on settlements to include East Jerusalem.
Offer the Palestinians a number of goodwill gestures to relieve the weight of the occupation in the West Bank.
Agree to discuss core issues — not just procedural ones, as Netanyahu desired — in upcoming proximity talks arranged by Washington between Israel and the Palestinians.
According to Gutmann and many other sources, Netanyahu agreed to the two planks that don’t involve Jerusalem settlements, and, as I’ve been writing about recently, apparently caved in on permanent status issues which has been the most important point of contention in recent months.

It’s important to step back and recall the chronology leading up to the present confrontation: first there was the slap in the face to the administration during the Biden visit over the 1,600 settler housing units in occupied Arab East Jerusalem. This led to a firestorm of angry condemnations from various senior American officials. Netanyahu was required to issue a climbdown, which involved agreeing to gestures towards the Palestinians and the inclusion of all permanent status issues in proximity talks. This was communicated both verbally and in a letter to the President which remains unreleased. That seemed to satisfy the White House and both parties engaged in a ratcheting down tensions. Netanyahu was invited by Mitchell to meet with the President on Tuesday. When he arrived in the United States, Netanyahu gave a belligerent and defiant speech at AIPAC, including his ridiculous statement that "Jerusalem is not a settlement," as if anyone had ever claimed that Jerusalem is a settlement. The point the administration and everyone else is making is not that Jerusalem IS a settlement, but that there are settlements IN Jerusalem. It was a shameless performance of both defiance and demagoguery, in marked contrast to Sec. Clinton’s balanced, constructive approach at the same conference. The real turning point, however, was the announcement of 20 new settler housing units in occupied Arab East Jerusalem on the very day of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. In other words, Pres. Obama was being treated to a slightly less dramatic version of the insult delivered to VP Biden only two weeks ago.

This was obviously too much for the administration, greatly strengthened by its recent victory on healthcare and the emergence of an Obama presidency not to be trifled with. By all indications, Netanyahu was treated to an unexpected and rather severe dressing down by Obama. Among other things, it would appear the President reiterated the American demands first issued by Sec. Clinton, and that Netanyahu was told in no uncertain terms that his written letter to Obama was unsatisfactory and required rewriting (also known as "clarification"). That the meeting was tense and unfortunate from the Israeli point of view is strongly indicated by the dead silence from the administration regarding it, with no gesture of warmth or friendship whatsoever, let alone a photo op. Probably even more extraordinary was the sequence of the first long meeting, followed by a confab within the Israeli delegation, a request for a second meeting, another long Netanyahu-Obama meeting which did not produce an agreement either, and then negotiations between senior officials that went on until at least 2 AM, also without resolution. Also extraordinary was Netanyahu’s cancellation of all his public events and meetings yesterday in order to deal with the crisis. Rozen’s quotation about "frantic calls" and "panic" therefore, as I say, rings true.

So, it would certainly appear that Netanyahu and his government have miscalculated dreadfully and now find themselves in an impossible situation. For many months now Netanyahu has been successfully triangulating between the demands of his right-wing coalition partners and the expectations of Washington, but the Biden fiasco followed by this second, obviously carefully calculated, rebuff to the administration on Jerusalem settlements has made that now impossible. Further confrontations are almost inevitable once this current row is resolved, as long as there is this fundamental contradiction between his political interests on the one hand and diplomatic requirements on the other hand. How Netanyahu is possibly going to deal with this, short of restructuring his coalition, I’m not sure at all. It seems clear that the administration is determined, buoyed by its recent success, and utterly fed up with the nonsense coming out of Tel Aviv.

So, as Aluf Benn put it in today’s Ha’aretz, Netanyahu leaves the US as a "disgraced, isolated and weaker" actor who, "instead of setting diplomatic agenda, has surrendered control of it." Never mind the panic at being confronted with an empowered, determined American president. Netanyahu even looks like a man who doesn’t control his own government, given his insistence that he had no knowledge of these repeated insulting announcements perfectly timed to coincide with diplomatic encounters with the most senior American officials. If he knew, he is culpable, but if he didn’t know, that’s even worse, as he looks incompetent and out of touch. Either way, it’s a disaster for him. He may have gotten political mileage up till now from demagoguery on Jerusalem among Jewish Israelis, but surely the diplomatic price has now become far too high, and must begin to translate into a political price as well. No one can pretend that Netanyahu has prevailed in this confrontation.

This means the Palestinians are in a very advantageous, but also very delicate situation themselves. They have a golden opportunity, indeed a very rare one, to deal with a politically difficult Israeli cabinet in a very effective manner with American and international support, and to advance their position considerably and get closer to the United States. But they need to know that following this confrontation with Israel, the administration will be more than willing to take on the Palestinians and the other Arabs as well. If they are prepared to confront Netanyahu, there won’t be much holding them back in confronting the PLO leadership or the Arab states. They need to remember that in Obama they are dealing with an ally and friend who is doing the heavy lifting now for their benefit, as well as in the US and enlightened Israeli interests as well. It’s therefore strategically wise on multiple registers for the Palestinians and the other Arabs to be as constructive and forthcoming as possible. If the United States does not believe you’re going to run with the ball, they will not pass it to you, and there is a grave danger that having encountered a recalcitrant, obdurate and belligerent Netanyahu and faced him down, if they feel they are going to encounter similar resistance on the Arab side, they may with great reluctance choose to walk away.

The depth of the opportunity is only emphasized by Sec. Gates repeating today recent statements by Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Mullen that emphasize Israel’s policies and, more importantly, the lack of a two state peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians negatively affects US strategic interests, and, either explicitly or implicitly, the safety of US forces in the Arab and Islamic world. There is a reconsideration of American strategic interests, with Palestine and an end to the occupation at its very center, in the present worldview dominating Washington discourse and administration policy. To not take advantage of this would be utter madness. Extremely unhelpful statements from some PLO officials and bizarre, almost insane, ideas floating around the Arab League about rescinding the Arab Peace Initiative, or any suggestion of not returning to proximity talks or putting up unworkable objections at this stage after all that has been done by the administration would be an unthinkable blunder. Through Netanyahu’s gross miscalculations and the administration’s firmness, determination and new level of authority, the Palestinians and the Arabs have a golden opportunity in the present circumstance that they must take advantage of or accept their share of the blame for the probably dire consequences.