Although media commentators overlooked it, the Obama administration did it again. They blindsided Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the eve of his trip to Washington.
The last time it happened was in May 2011 when US President Barack Obama set out his policy toward Israel and the Palestinians as Netanyahu was in flight, en route to Washington to meet with him.
In that speech Obama announced his support for an essentially full Israeli withdrawal to the entirely indefensible 1949 armistice lines in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. Obama adopted this position despite the fact that Netanyahu and the Israeli public rejected it and viewed it as a threat to Israel’s survival.
This time the Obama administration didn’t blindside Israel on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit with another hostile pronouncement in relation to the Palestinians. This time they did so in relation to Iran.
In an address on Saturday night before the National Iranian-American Council, Phillip Gordon, the White House’s coordinator for the Middle East, said that if US-Iranian talks on Iran’s nuclear weapons program lead to an agreement, they can pave the way for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In his words, “A nuclear agreement could begin a multi-generational process that could lead to a new relationship between our countries.”
Gordon’s statement was a blunt departure from the White House’s previous position that the only gain Iran would make by obeying binding UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit the Islamic theocracy from enriching uranium would be the abrogation of economic sanctions that were adopted to force Iran to end its illicit nuclear activities.
In accordance with US law, diplomatic relations with Iran are contingent on Iran’s cessation of support for terrorist organizations and other unlawful activities.
In his remarks to NIAC – a group that the vast majority of Iranian-Americans view as the unofficial lobby of the Iranian regime – Gordon said that due to the importance of the nuclear issue, to make progress in nuclear talks, the US is willing to ignore Iran’s support for terrorism and other crimes.
In his words, “The nuclear issue is too important to subordinate to a complete transformation of Iran internally.”
FACED WITH this boldfaced US declaration that it will not only do nothing to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, but is also endorsing continued Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah, Netanyahu opted to avoid yet another direct confrontation with the White House. Rather than directly call the administration out for its role in enabling Iran to become a nuclear state, Netanyahu sufficed with his usual rhetoric. He gently chided Obama for his pro-Iranian policy during his public remarks at the White House. And in all of his public statements, Netanyahu underlined how and why Iran and its nuclear weapons program are a greater threat to the free world than Islamic State.
There are probably two reasons for Netanyahu’s reticence. First, a confrontation would be futile.
Even before Gordon’s speech, it was obvious to Netanyahu that Obama’s goal is not to prevent Iran from getting nuclear bombs. The goal of Obama’s Iran policy is to reinstate US-Iranian relations.
Obama sees himself as a reincarnation of Richard Nixon. He will be for US-Iranian relations what Nixon was for US relations with Communist China.
Obama doesn’t mind if Iran has a bomb in the basement so long as he can drink tea with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the drawing room.
Given Obama’s absolute commitment to his goal, there was no point in having a confrontation with him. Netanyahu’s rejection of Obama’s position, made through his repeated warnings, was directed toward other ears.
Netanyahu’s statements and warning were directed toward the American media, the American public and the American political class. His goal is to develop and strengthen support for an Israeli policy that would run counter to Obama’s policy of embracing Iran even at the cost of enabling Iran to become a nuclear power.
The only problem with Netanyahu’s rhetoric is that it isn’t credible. At this point, it is hard to believe Netanyahu has a policy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
During his five-and-a-half years in office, Netanyahu has taken only sporadic action against Iran.
The cumulative impact of those actions has been limited, in part due to the Obama administration’s policy of leaking Israeli operations to the media.
Moreover, in light of the episodic nature of these actions, it is hard to view them as integrated components of an overall strategy whose aim is to destroy or significantly degrade Iran’s nuclear installations. In other words, it doesn’t appear that Israel has a policy of any kind for dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
All we have is Netanyahu’s Churchillian rhetoric, which in itself will do nothing to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
As the media analysts were quick to point out, whereas Netanyahu sought to focus his discussions with Obama on Iran, Obama was keen to focus his discussions with Netanyahu on the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s unwillingness to focus specifically on the Palestinian issue was notable mainly because in his limited remarks on the issue, he signaled that unlike the situation with Iran, he has a new strategic vision and policy for contending with the Palestinian conflict with Israel.
The first aspect of Netanyahu’s apparently emerging policy came out on Monday during his speech at the UN General Assembly. There Netanyahu criticized PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas more honestly and assertively than he ever has before.
Slamming Abbas for his libelous charge that Israel enacted a genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza, Netanyahu said that the deranged moral universe in which Israel can be accused of genocide is “the same moral universe where a man [Abbas] who wrote a dissertation of lies about the Holocaust, and who insists on a Palestine free of Jews, Judenrein, can stand at the podium and shamelessly accuse Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
Netanyahu then further distanced himself from the PLO-centric framework for building peaceful relations between Israel and its neighbors. He noted that the rise of Sunni jihadist forces and the Iranian nuclear threat have brought major Sunni Arab states to the conclusion that their best bet is to work with Israel to meet and surmount the growing dangers. This new regional landscape in turn can provide a means of resolving the Palestinian conflict with Israel in a manner that will not endanger Israel.
Netanyahu’s suggestion, repeated at the White House Wednesday, that neighboring Arab states may develop new means of resolving the Palestinian issue, rings true in light of the diplomatic support Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates gave Israel in its war against Hamas this summer. And even though the Egyptian government later denied the reports, talk persists that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi did in fact offer the Palestinians sovereignty over a large swathe of Sinai adjacent to Gaza as a means of establishing a viable Palestinian state without sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem.
The assessment that a policy is slowly being developed along these lines was reinforced on Tuesday by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Repeating Netanyahu’s reference to a regional alliance structure that can be used to resolve the Palestinian conflict with Israel, Ya’alon said that it is irrational to even consider an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria in the aftermath of the war in Gaza.
The emerging policy apparently involves the application of Israeli sovereignty over all or parts of Judea and Samaria, along the lines I set out in my book The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, in combination with an Egyptian offer of Sinai territory to the Palestinians in conjunction with the demilitarization of Gaza.
From the administration’s behavior following Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday, we learned that the administration is adamantly opposed to any revision of the current PLO-centric framework, which is predicated on Israeli concessions to an intransigent PLO.
Shortly after Netanyahu left the White House, the administration bitterly attacked and threatened Israel, because the Jewish state refuses to obey the administration and deny Jews the right to buy and own property in eastern, southern and northern Jerusalem. The administration was enraged because in line with Israel’s refusal to adopt anti-Semitic housing policies, the Jerusalem Planning Board approved the construction of housing for Jews and Arabs in the city.
Also on Wednesday, Channel 10 reported that Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to scuttle the developing Israeli alliance with Egypt and other anti-jihadist Sunni states by bringing Qatar, Hamas’s principal Sunni state-sponsor, into the mix. Kerry is reportedly trying to organize a regional peace conference that would coerce Israel into accepting the so-called Saudi Peace Initiative from 2002. That initiative would require Israel to surrender to all the PLO’s territorial demands and accept millions of foreign, hostile Arabs into its shrunken, indefensible territory.
In light of Obama’s absolute commitment to the anti-Israel, PLO-centric policy model for dealing with the Palestinian rejection of Israel, for the next two years there will be no change in US policy on the issue.
Under these circumstances, Netanyahu’s task is to lay the foundation in Washington for support for an Israeli policy that abandons the PLO as a partner and moves beyond the failed two-state model. Here, Netanyahu’s statements at the UN and the White House indicate that this is the path he has embarked upon.
Unfortunately, while Netanyahu may prefer to lay the groundwork for a new policy indirectly and cautiously, Abbas’s bid to convince the US to support the passage of a Security Council resolution that would require Israel to withdraw from Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem a week after the 2016 presidential elections will likely force Netanyahu present an alternative to the PLO-centric two-state plan sooner rather than later.
After the 2016 elections, Obama will be unconstrained by concerns for Democratic candidates. Most of the Security Council resolutions against Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria were passed after the 1980 presidential elections when the then lame duck Jimmy Carter felt free to attack Israel at will.
To avoid a repetition of that experience in late 2016, Netanyahu will have to offer an alternative to the failed two-state plan ahead of the 2016 presidential nominating conventions.
Netanyahu’s statements in the US this week present us with a mixed picture of his leadership.
Netanyahu appears more resolute on the Palestinian threat than he has in the past. This is a good thing. But on the most pressing threat Israel faces today, his strong words rang hollow. The only way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power is for Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. Until Israel adopts a policy for doing so, words will not suffice.