Is Netanyahu testing a newly weakened Obama?

Is there a new crisis in U.S.-Israel relations because of the latest flap over building in East Jerusalem?

If there is, it may be because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a mistaken view that a congressional election that is changing all the rules for domestic politics will affect Obama administration Middle East policy, as well.

Netanyahu chose to take a mild, pro-forma rebuke over the latest East Jerusalem housing announcement – particularly mild, given how it seemed to violate his promise not to surprise the Obama administration on such issues – and turn it into a big test of how things have changed since the Democrats took a drubbing last week.

JTA’s Ron Kampeas captured the Prime Minister’s new mindset in a story with a great headline – “First sign of the new U.S. political reality—Bibi’s swagger.”

Ron wrote that Netanyahu’s challenge to Obama on Iran – calling for the threat of military action, echoing the super-hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham’s apparent call for all-out war – as “a clear sign that Netanyahu feels empowered by the Republican sweep last week of the House of Representatives to trump the Obama administration’s emphasis on peacemaking with the Palestinians with his own priority: confronting Iran.”

The same dynamic seemed at work in the new East Jerusalem building flap.

Instead of responding in a low-key way to a low-key, almost automatic reprimand, Netanyahu quickly escalated, saying that “"Israel does not see any connection between the peace process and the policy of planning and construction in Jerusalem.”

This sure looks like Netanyahu testing how far he can go with a newly weakened administration in recasting some fundamental assumptions that both sides have agreed on as the foundation of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, starting with the assumption that any agreement will have to include significant compromises on Jerusalem.

If that’s what he’s doing, he may not get the answer he hoped for.

As I’ve written, I don’t’ think this administration sees much hope for stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and I don’t see them making a big push – which would include new pressure on both sides – until there are significant changes in the diplomatic and political climate. Nor do I think this administration’s Middle East peacemaking has been very smart.

But for a variety of reasons, they’re not going to sit back and do nothing if Netanyahu continues to poke them in the eye on the Jerusalem issue, and if the perception spreads that he is trying to change the game.

Netanyahu may be counting on his Republican friends in a far-more-GOP Congress to have his back, and to a degree they will; there will be a lot of public criticism of Obama if this crisis escalates, a lot of appeals to Jewish voters.

But this is a rhetorical, not a real issue for the new GOP House majority. I’m not saying they don’t care; I am saying that there’s not much they can do to change administration policy, and the Middle East is very far from a priority in a legislative agenda tightly focused on lowering taxes and cutting the federal government down to size.

Nor will Bibi’s new “swagger” scare an administration that can read the polls as well as anybody: a small proportion of Jewish swing voters will be turned off by the President’s actions, but most Jews vote on domestic concerns, not Israel.

Also, Obama continues to seek improved relations with the Islamic world, and the Jerusalem issue – for good reasons or bad – is a hot button issue with most of them. His credibility is on the line; if he allows Netanyahu to change the rules and take Jerusalem off the table entirely, he might as well forget Middle East diplomacy.

I’m not arguing Israel should give up Jerusalem, or that East Jerusalem is functionally identical to remote West Bank settlements. I don’t think Netanyahu’s Likud, Kadima and Labor predecessors were arguing that, either, when they agreed that the status of Jerusalem would be a key “final status” issue – meaning, it would be compromised, since that’s the point of negotiating about it at all.

I am saying he may be expecting more from an administration that suffered big losses last week than he’s going to get, and in doing so, he is could be creating a new diplomatic crisis that could undo the positive work he and Obama have done this year in overcoming their differences.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.