Back in May, I noted that Barack Obama was setting up a high-risk test of will and strength with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the issue of settlements. It was, I wrote, a test that Obama dared not lose so early in his presidency.
As Secretary of State Clinton described it at the time, Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions. We think it is in the best interests [of the peace process] that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly. … And we intend to press that point.”
But settlements continued, with little U.S. response. By November, in a piece headlined “Obama failed to back up tough talk in Middle East,” I wrote that the president had lost that test of wills:
“Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu in effect called Obama’s bluff, blithely ignoring the American pressure and continuing to expand settlements. Obama has been powerless to respond….
In truth, there hasn’t been much realistic hope of progress toward peace in the Middle East since the end of the Clinton administration, when the late Yasser Arafat walked away from the best deal the Palestinians were ever likely to see. But Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand over settlements and then fail to back it up was a major mistake that set the cause of peace back even further.”
Today, I have to admit that was at the very least premature, and may in fact prove to have been flat out wrong. Handed an opportunity by Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new units in East Jerusalem, Obama has renewed the pressure, and he twisted the screws even tighter on Netanyahu during his recent visit to Washington.
The Israeli press, which is understandably more attuned to such things than its American counterparts, got the message pretty clearly. In a piece headlined “Netanyahu leaves U.S. disgraced, isolated and weaker,” Aluf Benn writes:
“Instead of a reception as a guest of honor, Netanyahu was treated as a problem child, an army private ordered to do laps around the base for slipping up at roll call.
The revolution in the Americans’ behavior is clear to all. On Sunday morning Obama was still anxiously looking ahead to the House of Representatives vote on health care – the last thing he wanted was a last-minute disagreement with congressmen over ties with Israel.
The moment the bill was passed, however, a victorious Obama was free to deal with his unruly guest.
The Americans made every effort to downplay the visit. As during his last visit in November, Netanyahu was invited to the White House at a late hour, without media coverage or a press conference. If that were not enough, the White House spokesman challenged Netanyahu’s observation at AIPAC that “Jerusalem is not a settlement.”
The Americans didn’t even wait for him to leave Washington to make their disagreement known. It was not the behavior Washington shows an ally, but the kind it shows an annoyance….
Netanyahu will need to work hard to rehabilitate his image, knowing full well that Obama will not relent, but instead demand that he stop zigzagging and decide, once and for all, whether he stands with America or with the settlers.”
Akiva Eldar, also in Haaretz, writes that Netanyahu has kept a keen eye on the American political calendar, hoping to deal with a weakened Obama:
“Netanyahu had been hoping to buy time until November’s Congressional elections, which coincide with the deadline he set for the settlement freeze. But with America’s strategic interest on the line, Bibi’s favorite political game (playing the Jewish community and Congress against the White House and the State Department) isn’t working anymore. Obama decided his moderate Middle East coalition is more important than Netanyahu’s extremist one. This is a point of no return.”
David Horovitz in the conservative Jerusalem Post comes to a similar conclusion:
“And yet Netanyahu headed home Thursday the near-ostracized victim of what he regards as the Obama administration’s wrongheadedness, and more deeply aware than ever of the extent of the rift. He left behind an administration, and most especially a president, angry and frustrated by what it regards as his stubbornness and misplaced priorities….
And with that yawning US-Israel divide comes the exacerbation of Israel’s international pariah status, an accompanying boost to Israel’s enemies and reinforcement for the cooling of ties by former friends. Would Britain have responded quite so publicly to its ostensible evidence of Israeli passport fakery, would other affected countries be investigating quite so assiduously, if it were publicly clear that the US and Israel stood shoulder-to-shoulder today as they did in the recent past?”
I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far — Israel and the United States are and should remain close friends and allies despite this tension — but the interplay between the tough, experienced Netanyahu and the fresh-faced Obama is a bit reminiscent of that between the tough Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy.
The Soviet leader thought he saw weakness in the new American president that could be exploited. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, he tried to do so, and found himself pitted against a tougher opponent than he had realized. In the end, it was Khrushchev who was forced to blink and pull the missiles out of Cuba.
This is a different case, of course, involving different people under different circumstances. But at the very least it seems safe to say that Netanyahu underestimated Obama’s tenacity, and is now being forced to reconsider both his course and his negotiating partner.