Israel's Missing Foreign Policy

Israel's Missing Foreign Policy

Netanyahu's UN speech about Iran was delivered in front of the world but meant only for Israelis. 

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement on Tuesday of his decision to call for early elections did not come as a surprise. His dramatic speech at the podium of the UN General Assembly in late September was an early warning of this domestic political development. The links between that speech, with its now-famous image of an Iranian bomb, and Tuesday’s "political bomb" remind me of Henry Kissinger's observation of the Israeli political culture; in the 1970s, after a period of tedious diplomatic negotiations related to an attempt to avoid another war between Egypt and Israel, the former secretary of state concluded that "Israel has no foreign policy; it has only a domestic policy." Similarly, when Netanyahu displayed, with a theatrical flourish, his red line on the image of an Iranian bomb, he was not trying to raise the awareness of senior representatives of governments to the Iranian nuclear program. He was looking over their heads—and across the ocean.

America and leading European countries deeply involved in efforts to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat didn’t need Netanyahu's graphic explanation of the stages and timeline of the development of the Iranian bomb. Netanyahu did not expect that his lecture would affect their policy toward Iran, which is based on seriously considered strategic considerations. The prime minister also knew that the international community’s Middle East policy would be designed by the American president elected on November 6. It won’t emerge one day or one speech before.

As Netanyahu himself reminded President Mahmoud Abbas, in response to the Palestinian leader's speech on the same podium (labeled by the Israeli prime minister as "libelous"), "We won't solve our conflict with speeches at the UN. That's not the way to solve it." Netanyahu did not travel to New York to seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor did he travel there to lobby, as he did last year, against the Arab initiative to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to a nonmember state. Netanyahu spoke in fluent American English, but his message was written in Hebrew. It was directed to the audience of the Israeli television networks at home. Thus did Netanyahu use the UN General Assembly to launch his election campaign and set the agenda for the 2013 elections.

That agenda begins and ends with the Iranian nuclear threat. The drawing of the bomb, with the added red line, will decorate the Likud's banners. The message will be: "It's the second Holocaust, stupid." The calculation is simple: When Israelis hear their leader announce to the world that 2013 will be a critical year for the existence of their country, they will become less likely to rock the political boat.

On the one hand, the new "red line" defuses for a while the anxiety that arose last month from the regional and global consequences of a possible Israeli strike on Iran undertaken without Washington’s assent. It also makes Netanyahu appear as a responsible statesman, who takes into consideration the aftershocks of his decisions. On the other hand, by drawing a "red line" that won’t be reached until next summer, Netanyahu fashions for himself a relatively quiet period in the Palestinian and settlements arena and removes the "social justice" campaign from the top of the political agenda.

This brings me back to Kissinger. A new book (Kipnis, 2012, in Hebrew) describes the secretary of state's attempts to persuade Prime Minister Golda Meir to accept Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's peace plan. Meir told Kissinger she needed to "buy more time" until after the Israeli elections. Nixon accepted the "buy more time" plea and refrained from using American leverage to pressure Israel on the deal. Unfortunately, Sadat had different domestic considerations and a different timetable. The result was a bloody war, which cost Israel the lives of 2,650 troops.

In light of the political and economic situation in the Palestinian territories, there is no guarantee that the "red line" of Abbas coincides with that of Netanyahu, not to mention the considerations of the American administration. Senior Israeli military sources bolster media reports that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal decided to resign his office in order to challenge Abbas in the forthcoming elections for the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Growing frustrations on the part of Palestinians regarding the stagnation of the peace process and the support of the Egyptian "big brother" could pave the way for Hamas in the West Bank and put the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

In this case, U.S. president Obama could assume the role of gravedigger. Last week the British Guardian quoted an American memorandum warning European governments against supporting Palestinians at the UN. Hanan Ashwari, a member of the PLO executive committee, described the memorandum as "typical American behaviour" and added that "this is tremendous American pressure and bias."

Following instructions from AIPAC, the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, the U.S. Congress has warned Palestinian leaders that if they pursue "unilateral steps" in the UN, the result will be a cutoff of U.S. aid to the PA. What will happen in the occupied territories if the Palestinian Authority discovers it lacks the funds to pay the wages of police officers, doctors and teachers?

And what will happen if the Israeli elections perpetuate the endemic conflicts undermining American national interests? During the last year, President Obama has demonstrated that Israel is not the only country in which domestic policy has the last word. Will the man who sits in the oval office next winter find a way to bring together the next Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president before it’s too late?

Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition.

Image: Africa Renewal