As the world’s sole superpower and Israel’s principal ally, the United States has, despite the mythological Israeli lobby, always had a great deal of influence over Israeli officials. Now, though it was not his intention, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has given President Obama a very big stick with which to beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The United States rarely hesitates to criticize Israel for policies it deems problematic. In fact, Israel is the only Western democratic country that is routinely pilloried by the State Department. When it appears that Israel is snubbing the United States, for example, when it announces new settlements, it is only able to move forward if the president does not believe the action crosses a red line. When that sometimes ambiguous line is crossed, presidents from Truman to Obama have not hesitated to remind Israel who is dependent on whom.
The most famous example is Eisenhower’s anger over the French-British-Israeli collusion in the 1956 Suez War. In retrospect, it was Eisenhower who made the wrong choice, but he threatened Israel with a variety of sanctions, mostly over the objections of Congress, which forced Israel to withdraw from the territory it captured from Egypt.
This case was not unique. After Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, Reagan suspended the U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation agreement prompting Begin to accuse Reagan of treating Israel like a “banana republic.” The U.S. also suspended the delivery of F-16 jet fighters to Israel after the raid on Osirak.
More recently, both George W. Bush and Obama, whose attitudes toward Israel are near polar opposites, pressured Israel to stop its wars in Lebanon and Gaza when the publicity about civilian casualties made their support for the operations untenable.
Yitzhak Shamir crossed George H.W. Bush’s red line with his decision to greatly expand settlements in the West Bank, leading Bush to punish Israel by calling for a reduction in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel by an amount equal to the funds spent on settlements. As the growth of settlements has continued, it is clear no President is willing to risk a serious rift over the issue, especially when Congress is likely to object to any draconian measures.
There is at least one exception.
One of the brightest red lines is the planned development of the area between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem. Referred to as E1, this long-planned project would link the third largest Jewish city in the West Bank with Jerusalem, now a short 10-minute drive away. The Arabs have tried to block the plan diplomatically, and by filling in the area with Palestinian homes, a tactic that is ignored by the United States. Every so often, an Israeli prime minister announces that E1 is moving forward, the Arabs scream, and the United States issues a routine condemnation. Usually in less than 48-hours, the E1 project is mysteriously suspended. No one has ever explained the reversal, but it is likely that the United States privately sends a message that threatens such punitive measures that every prime minister has backed down.
So along comes Abbas with his plan to circumvent negotiations by going to the United Nations. He is doing so because Palestinian terrorists have been unable to force Israel to capitulate to their demands, the Arab states are unwilling to go to war on their behalf and the president they expected to be sympathetic is unable or unwilling to pressure Israel to accept their recalcitrant positions. Now Abbas hopes to win international support for a UN Security Council resolution that sets a timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1949 armistice lines with Jerusalem as its capital. Abbas expects the UN to use progressively severe sanctions against Israel to enforce the UN decision that will ultimately lead to the collapse of the “Zionist entity” in the same way that Afrikaner rule unraveled in South Africa.
One person stands in the way of this strategy – Barack Obama. No binding resolution can get through the Security Council if the United States uses its veto power. Contrary to Arab propaganda, the U.S. uses the veto sparingly and often abstains to allow resolutions critical of Israel to be adopted. An abstention would allow a resolution to pass and Obama could ingenuously claim that he didn’t support it.
On the issue of statehood, Obama has publicly said the U.S. will veto a Palestinian statehood resolution. In doing so, however, he has acquired tremendous leverage over Netanyahu. Before Israel takes any actions that Obama objects to, Netanyahu has to consider the possibility that the president will use his nuclear diplomatic option. It is a dangerous game for Netanyahu to play, not knowing exactly where Obama’s red line is painted. It could have been the announcement that a number of Jews are moving into East Jerusalem. That or any number of other maneuvers, as well as Netanyahu’s lack of rapport with the president, may have already started the countdown.
Will Obama continue to endure what he considers Netanyahu’s disrespect in addition to actions that he irrationally believes are obstacles to regional peace and stability, and threats to American interests? Will Netanyahu continue to follow Menachem Begin’s example and lecture the president about Jewish history and remind him that Israel is not a banana republic that can be pushed around when its security is at stake? Will he make the mistake of believing that the pro-Israel Congress will protect Israel from Obama, even though it has no power to prevent the president from approving a UN resolution establishing a Palestinian state? Would Obama risk alienating the large Jewish constituency that voted for him, and that his successor may need to keep a Democrat in the White House? Will that concern be trumped by the need to recruit Arab “allies” to fight his war against ISIS, and will he then stick with the old Arabist canard that these states care more about the Palestinians than their state interests?
This is a dangerous time for Israel, as it confronts the possibility of being surround by radical Muslims committed to its destruction, while also facing a diplomatic onslaught that is being held at bay – for the moment — by a president who barely disguises his disdain for the prime minister. Obama’s support could dissipate overnight if he feels Netanyahu has painted him into a corner. It therefore behooves the prime minister to stay away from red lines, and take the initiative in advocating a peace agreement rather than waiting for either another futile initiative by Kerry or a U.S. Security Council vote in favor of Palestinian statehood.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby and Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews.