Netanyahu's Choice

Netanyahu's Choice

Politician who keeps his office or statesman who brings peace to the Middle East? The decision is his.

Before an adoring, cheering audience of nearly 8,000 delegates and guests, Benjamin Netanyahu gave a rousing keynote address at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington on March 22. The applause from the delegates far eclipsed the more formal greetings offered to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke earlier in the day. Netanyahu refused to back down on the sensitive issue of building more Jewish settlements in the annexed sections of East Jerusalem, arguing that Israel had the right to build anywhere in Jerusalem since it was Israel's capital. The Palestinians hope that East Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu's statement goes against the wishes of the Obama administration and follows in the wake of the crisis precipitated during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel on March 9, when the Israelis announced that 1,600 new houses for orthodox Jews in the contended areas would be authorized.

Concerning Iran, Netanyahu made it clear that Israel reserved the right to act unilaterally if it felt its national survival was at stake. In view of his determination to stress the ominous nature of the Iranian threat and the reality that without the strongest possible cooperation from the United States, Israel will be hard pressed to meet this threat, it is strange that he has done so little to mollify the Obama administration on the issue of settlements. Without movement towards a settlement freeze there will be no two-state solution to the Palestinian problem and therefore no meaningful peace with the Arab world. This does not serve American interests, which are deeply invested in fighting extremism in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the prime minister made a cursory reference to "helping America stem the tide of militant Islam," he offered no acknowledgements or gratitude for the price the United States has paid fighting terrorists who are bitter enemies of Israel.

Beyond the heady atmosphere of the AIPAC conference, Netanyahu faces a fundamental dilemma. He can choose to be a manipulative but successful Israeli politician, keeping together a fractious coalition by caving in to right-wing demands, which are primarily counter to American interests. By doing so he keeps his job, but there will be no peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and sooner or later the moderate Arabs will walk away from whatever contacts they have with him at this point in time. Alternatively, he can bite the bullet and agree that there will have to be a compromise on Jerusalem and that settlement activity must be frozen while negotiations take place. This way he stands a chance to be the Israeli statesman who finally resolves the Palestinian problem in a way that will lead to a two-state solution. It is difficult to see anyone to the left of Netanyahu having the political skills to bring this about. For Netanyahu to do it he will have to form a new coalition, and it is not at all clear that Tzipi Livni, the Kadima leader, who won more seats in the recent election than Netanyahu, will agree to play second fiddle. But if she were to join a new coalition, negotiations might be possible, and the Obama promise to work diligently the resolve the Israel-Palestinian problem could once more gain some traction.

In the meantime, the issue of Iran has to be resolved. It is now increasingly clear that the U.S. Department of Defense, both civilian and uniformed, is strongly opposed to military action against Iran, absent the Iranians doing something really stupid, which they are unlikely to do. The question is whether the Pentagon will be sufficiently persuasive with the White House to rule out any support for Israeli military action. No one will believe that if the Israelis go ahead with a unilateral attack, the United States did not give a "green light." It is difficult for Israel to undertake a unilateral attack without getting American permission, particularly to fly over Iraq. So it's not only settlements, but also the use of force against Iran that poses the most difficult challenges for both Netanyahu and Obama.

Had Obama lost the health-care vote, his stature, both in the United States and in the Middle East, would be weakened and Netanyahu could probably walk away from his latest Washington trip feeling like a winner. But for the moment the psychological dynamics of American politics has changed and Obama can use his new stature and clout to tell the prime minister that he has tough choices to make and the sooner he makes them the better for everybody. This, it is hoped, was the message he delivered to Netanyahu when they met for two hours yesterday evening.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.