An uninformed pundit watching Obama’s recent interview with Huffington Post would likely form the view that he was watching Netanyahu’s electoral rival losing not so gracefully.
Obama could not hide his bitter disappointment. The master of diplomacy could not be less diplomatic. Call it a ‘temper tantrum’ as Senator McCain and the Wall Street Journal have or ‘Obama’s revenge’, whichever way you look at it, Obama is putting his ego first and his country second.
Only a few weeks ago, we saw an unprecedented campaign by the administration to prevent the Israeli Prime Minister from accepting an invitation to address Capital Hill on Iran. The week prior, the administration had the British PM actively campaign senators to support the deal – but the voice of opposition must be stymied, said the leader of the free world. The excuse given was that such a platform so near to the elections would undermine independence of the Israeli electoral process and US neutrality. Salim Jubran, the Arab Supreme Court justice who oversaw the Israeli elections didn’t think so. He allowed the speech to be broadcast with a five-minute delay. He watched it live with a hand on the buzzer but he never had to push it. The speech, he said, was current affairs, not politics.
Wind the clock forward a fortnight and we discover that Obama has been far from neutral in this campaign. Indeed, the US invested heavily in regime change in Israel. Obama’s 2012 campaign strategist Jeremy Bird flew to Israel to support opposition campaigns to unseat the Israeli Prime Minister. The US Department of State and NGOs affiliated with the Democrats have spent millions to fund opposition organizations using American taxpayer funds.
It is baffling that the administration that opposed regime change wherever dictators rule has favoured one in the only democracy in the Middle East; that the president prefers to back the Israeli opposition than the Iranian opposition, who following their unsupported protests in 2009, are still rotting in jail cells or in unmarked graves.
But actions have consequences, Mr President.
This election campaign, funded in part by foreign groups in collusion with privately-owned Israeli media launched an unprecedented negative campaign that made Netanyahu its target. ‘Anyone but bibi’ had some initial success but led to one of the ugliest and most divisive campaign in Israeli history: Right vs Left, Jew vs Arab, Ashkenazi vs Sefardi, Religious vs Secular, Migrant vs non-migrant.
Netanyahu was at a point of crisis. There was a real possibility that the Zionist Camp would get the first opportunity to try and form a government. In the end of the day, Netanyahu, like Obama, is a political animal. To survive, Netanyahu had to move to the right. In doing so, he abandoned his decade-long strategy to pull his party to the centre and turned right to galvanise the Likud base and to cannibalize from the parties to his right. The strategy paid off.
However, in doing so, he said things he should have expected to come back and bite him. The first of which was to respond ‘indeed’ to a question ‘If you are the prime minister, a Palestinian state won’t be created?’ The second was this this comment made on his facebook page on election day after discovering the Arab voter turnout at the time was 3 times higher than in the last election. Netanyahu said:
The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses… We only have you. Go to the polls, bring your friends and family, vote Mahal [Likud] to close the gap between us and Labor [Zionist Union].
Hours later, while the polls were still open, Netanyahu clarified:
I want to clarify: there is nothing illegitimate with citizens voting, Jewish or Arab, as they see fit. What is not legitimate is the funding, the fact that money comes from abroad from NGOs and foreign governments, brings them en masse to the ballot box in an organized fashion, in favor of the left, gives undue power to the extremist Arab list, and weakens the right bloc in such a way that we will be unable to build a government — despite the fact that most citizens of Israel support the national camp and support me as the prime minister from Likud.
The president ignored the clarifying comments and attacked the rhetoric as contrary Israeli democracy, saying ‘not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.’
The President is partly right. Playing the race card is dangerous in a highly volatile environment, but Netanyahu’s comments were more political than racial, and further, they would have most likely not have been made if the US had not intervened in the elections and forced Netanyahu to appeal to the far right. Besides, Obama seems to have forgotten that it is the race card that put him in office in the first place and that Vice President Biden, addressing African Americans in August 2012, said ‘He [Romney] is going to put y’all back in chains.’
In the end of the day, Israeli democracy is robust enough to deal with such comments and opposition leaders jumped on the comments and addressed them within the confines of Israeli democracy. Netanyahu’s first act as prime minister elect was to apologise in person to Arab Israeli leaders. As for the Arab parties, they had the last laugh increasing their bloc to 13 seats and becoming the third largest party in the Israeli Knesset.
As for Netanyahu’s comments about the Palestinian State, the reality is this. The Palestinians have made it clear they are not willing to contemplate a demilitarized state, recognise the Israeli state or drop their demand for a right to destroy Israel’s demographics. Since Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech in which he recognised the two state solution, the PA has chosen to ally itself with Hamas rather than call an election, now five years overdue, which it is guaranteed to lose. Put simply, it is a realistic assessment that Israel does not currently have a partner with a Palestinian mandate to pursue peace. Meanwhile, Islamic Jihad is on Israeli borders in the Golan and Sinai; Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are now on two Israeli borders and Obama is about to sign a deal that will strike a nuclear arms race in the region. It is a frank and honest assessment (albeit diplomatically incorrect) to say that the Palestinian issue is low on the agenda for the incoming government.
History has shown that Israeli leaders on the right (Begin and Sharon) are capable of making brave concessions to secure peace when a workable deal is on the table. Netanyahu will no doubt do the same if he can be assured that such peace will bring security, not insecurity. So far, Obama has been unable to provide such an assurance.
In light of this, Obama’s call for a ‘reassessment’ of US strategy and his refusal to accept the Israeli backtracking from the statements made are foolish. The president who broke 22% of his election promises now takes a single word reply in a heated election campaign as a change of Israeli policy, stating that ‘we take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available.’
We took you at your word when you stood up in Cairo and said ‘the Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems,’ and yet despite regime changes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen; a civil war in Syria; the creation of an Islamic caliphate; and Iranian military presence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and now Yemen – none of which have anything to do with Israel or the Palestinians – you are the first to pin the mess in the Middle East on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We took you at your word when you said you will stand by your friends and yet you spent the past six years turning his back on old allies to embrace their enemies in the vain hope of gaining new friends. If you don’t want to take our word for it, ask the Egyptians, the Saudis and the Gulf states.
We took you at your word when you promised that the use of chemical weapon by Assad’s regime would be a red line and then you went and painted it light pink.
Mr President, we took you at your word when you promised that Iran would never have nuclear weapons capabilities and yet you are letting them have their yellowcake and eat it too. Like a stalker obsessed, unlucky in love but blinded by it, you don’t get the hint when your calls go unanswered, when you are blocked or unfriended. You go on believing in love, in happily ever after, even as they chant, as they yell, as they scream ‘DEATH TO AMERICA’ at the top of their lungs.
Obama can hear nothing but the sound of his own voice and see nothing but the script for his next speech. He is endowed with one virtue of leadership but was disavowed of another. He knows the art of speaking but knows nothing about listening. His speech earlier this month in Selma, Alabama will go down in the history books, and rightly so, but history will judge him harshly for not listening to those who knew more (including Netanyahu), for having no room for reality in a room filled with visions of grandeur, for having nothing but Machiavellian plans, and for being so eager to write history that he forgot to read it.
But while Obama may choose to go down in history as the twenty-first century’s Chamberlin, Israel has not elected to go down in history as this century’s Czechoslovakia.
In the meantime, Obama’s tantrums are doing serious damage to the Israeli-US relationship. Most recently, White House officials accused Israel of spying for sharing intelligence briefings it received about US-Iranian talks with America’s enemies. The fact that Israel must fill the void in the democratic process of checks and balances is an indictment of the current US administration rather than the Israeli Prime Minister. The administration is stamping its feet and playing with matches, oblivious to how its disloyalty to allies and its pandering to enemies only weakens its position.
Mr President, those pesky Israelis didn’t follow your cue, and like it or hate it, you will just have to get used to putting up with Bibi for the next two years, just as all Israelis have had to put up with you for the past six. Hopefully, you can manage to do that with a few less temper tantrums.