Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, is as American as the president-elect Donald J. Trump with one seemingly unimportant difference – he was born in Israel. A (formerly?) US citizen, American educated and a past resident of Massachusetts. His views on politics and economy, his albeit brief business background (see Boston Consulting Group 1976-1978), mannerisms, his fluent use of linguistic nuances typical to the American-English, the ability to brazenly lie and spread cynical deceptions fit those same traits that typify Mr. Trump’s public behavior as displayed for all to see during his campaign. Sadly, Mr. Trump, as the president-elect, continues to lie and deceive and no one in his staff seems to be able to curb that unbridled urge. Mr. Netanyahu’s tendency to spread apocryphal stories is well known and matches that of Mr. Trump’s. In a recent interview with Lesley Stahl of CBS’s 60 Minutes Mr. Netanyahu claimed that he knows Mr. Trump “well”.
Mr. Netanyahu rarely, if ever, conducts press conferences thus avoiding the risk of having to answer questions not to his liking. He channels his influence over Israeli public opinion mainly through well-orchestrated conferences in his office with carefully vetted reporters, TV appearances that do not include questions by the press and via “Yisrael Hayom” (“Israel Today”), a daily tabloid owned by Sheldon Adelson, an American billionaire who operates a gambling empire, who holds extreme right political opinions and who regularly finance Republican candidates. Mr. Adelson strongly supports Netanyahu’s agenda. The paper, known for the extreme right-wing opinions of its editorial board as well as of the majority of its columnists, is widely distributed in Israel free of charge and thus is considered to command a large market share. A perfect combination for effective propaganda: a free paper with a religious, nationalistic and an extreme right-wing mission.
Being an American-at-heart, Netanyahu has a clear affinity to the American media as a tool to affect public opinion in the United States. Like Netanyahu, Mr. Trump is extremely versed in the power of the media and within a few days of his victory in the general elections, he granted an interview to CBS’s 60 Minutes. In that interview, conducted also by Lesley Stahl, he referred to Mr. Netanyahu as a “great guy”. Mr. Trump also said that he is committed to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We should recall that Trump’s predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, also made that same promise. Alas, the US Embassy remains in Tel Aviv. What a coincidence: using the same media platform both men complemented each other, brazenly lied and made promises they know they cannot fulfil. A marriage made in heaven.
So let us consider the 60 Minutes interview that was aired on Sunday December 11, 2016. I suspect that the subjects discussed and the questions asked were pre-cleared by Mr. Netanyahu because it seems that Ms. Stahl refrained from asking really tough questions. Nonetheless, some questions regarding the “peace process” with the Palestinians were asked. Mr. Netanyahu declared that he is fully committed to the “two state solution” and he is “focused” on achieving peace through the implementation thereof. He reiterated his readiness to facilitate direct negotiations with the Palestinians at any time without pre-conditions. He continued to say that the Israeli settlements across the West Bank are not an impediment to peace and to the attainment of a “two state solution”. He finally said that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”. In response to a question regarding his seemingly soured relations with President Barack Obama he said that “it is not personal”. He views himself obligated to do all he can to oppose the deal with Iran including speaking to a joint session at the US Congress. He denied the widely viewed opinion that his speech was an affront to President Obama, trying to obstruct Obama’s efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution without resorting to the use of military power.
Israeli settlements and the two state solution. A review of any recent map or aerial photos of the West Bank (for example a map published by the United Nations dated 2014) discloses a reality that flies in the face of anyone who still advocates for such a solution. Israeli settlements and the roads Israel paved to connect them are scattered in such a fashion that any reasonably contiguous Palestinian territory seems an impossibility. There are over 800,000 Israelis populating a long list of settlements some of which were constructed on privately owned lands. A widely held opinion by most foreign governments, including the US, who are friendly to Israel is that all of the settlements were constructed contrary to international laws and rules of war since the jurisdictional status of the entire West Bank has not been established thus in its entirety is considered as a territory “occupied by a foreign power” as a consequence of war.
Mr. Netanyahu, who formerly served as the Israeli emissary to the UN is undoubtedly familiar with international rules of military occupation. Notwithstanding thereof, he continues to maintain that most of the settlements were constructed on “Adamot Medina” (land owned by the state) although it remains to be defined which “state” owns the lands. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that those settlements that were constructed on confiscated (or “purchased” through bogus processes) private land must be dismantled and the land returned to its owners. The court established a deadline. However Netanyahu’s government, supported by its majority in the Knesset, is engaged in a legislative initiative to “overrule” the Supreme Court and “launder” those illegal settlements.
The Palestinian Authority indicated that once Palestine is declared an independent state no Israeli settlements be allowed to remain in the West Bank and the land will be returned to Palestinian private or public ownership. The Israeli government accused the PA in advocating “ethnic cleansing” which of course is nonsense. Since all of the settlements across the West Bank were constructed on land acquired as a result of war and since Israel had not formally annex the land or otherwise taken internationally agreed steps to resolve its jurisdictional status – all of the settlements are considered illegal. All of the American administrations since 1967, Democratic or Republican, adhered and continue to do so, to this definition. Given the current US/Arab relations, its UN status and relations with other UN powers, it is highly unlikely that the Trump administration will stray from this policy regardless of what Mr. Trump said during his campaign or told 60 Minutes.
Another issue, of course, is the nature of Israeli politics that is dominated by an extreme right-wing Jewish religious ideology which is based on a premise that all of the West Bank (“Yehuda and Shomron”) is Israel’s God-given land thus removal of any settlements is nothing short of heresy and therefore strictly prohibited. Mr. Netanyahu knows that removal of any of the settlements is likely to inflame religious and extreme nationalistic emotions and may result in bloodshed. Finally, Mr. Netanyahu himself in his own words declared openly during his campaign for reelection that so long as he is in office, there will be no Palestinian State. Of course, after his victory he retracted that ill statement by adding some deceiving lies about “changed circumstances” that would allow the establishment of such state. But that statement cannot be deleted from anyone’s memory, as noted by Secretary of State John Kerry, and his political partners as well as the world will continue to hold his feet to the fire. The bottom line: the “two state solution” is facing a formidable impediment and the Israeli settlements are almost an insurmountable obstacle to peace.
Recognition of a Jewish State. This demand by Mr. Netanyahu is nothing more than a cynical political ploy that is aimed at mounting as many obstacles on the road to peace as possible. Without dwelling on factual history, the preamble to the Oslo Agreement that was signed in 1993 between the government of the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that represented the Palestinian people declares in a simple language that the two sides agreed to recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, to live in peaceful coexistence, mutual dignity and security and achieve a lasting and comprehensive peace. In other words, the Palestinians recognized Israel’s undeniable right to exist within well-defined and secure borders. Of course, the Oslo Agreement is not and was not intended to be a fully implementable peace accord but it is sufficient to establish beyond any doubt the recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as an independent state with all the rights and obligations under international laws. It should be noted that under international laws and under the UN Charter, Israel is fully recognized as a sovereign Jewish State in accordance with its Declaration of Independence that was signed in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948.
Upon achieving a final and lasting peace agreement the Palestinians are bound to comply with the same international laws and the UN Charter thus by default recognizing Israel’s Declaration of Independence as the single document that defines the state as a Jewish State. One cannot envision an Israeli acquiescence to a final and fully implementable peace accord without an agreement by the Palestinians to abide by the same international laws and the UN Charter. Thus the demand by Mr. Netanyahu that Israel be specifically recognized by the Palestinians as a “Jewish State” is nothing more than a political maneuvering that intends to throw the monkey wrench in the spokes. The explanation that such a recognition will ensure, among other things, that none of the 1948 Palestinian refugees or their descendants be allowed to assert their right to return to the towns and villages that they vacated and that are situated with the borders of Israel proper, widely known as the “Right of Return”. However, the nullification of that “right” can be indelibly established in any peace document. It is assumed with great certainty that no Israeli government will ever sign any peace agreement with the Palestinians that does not nullifies the “Right of Return”. The quest by Mr. Netanyahu for a “Jewish State” recognition will not have any practical effect.
Finally a comment regarding the relations between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama. I would like to take Mr. Netanyahu at his words that his seemingly negative discourse with President Obama “is not personal” and that regardless of all else he would follow the same course of action that is based solely on his convictions to serve Israel as best he can. However, the facts suggest otherwise. At one of their meetings at the White House Mr. Netanyahu lectured President Obama on the importance of Israel to bolster US interests as it is its only unwavering democratic ally in a turbulent region. While there is a measure of significant truth in that statement, Mr. Obama, being a polite statesman that he is was visually uncomfortable in reminding Mr. Netanyahu that he, not Netanyahu, knows better what are the American concerns interests and policy objectives. To add insult to injury, Mr. Netanyahu appointed Mr. Ron Dermer, a staunch conservative Republican from Florida, as Israel’s ambassador to the US. Being a Republican, Mr. Dermer aligned himself with the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and arranged the invitation by the Speaker of the House to Mr. Netanyahu to speak to a joint session regarding the nuclear deal with Iran, knowingly circumventing the White House. While it is completely legitimate for Israel to be concerned with Iran’s ambitions and Mr. Netanyahu viewed himself free to pursue any avenue to dissuade the US administration from signing the agreement, only a fool would believe that a televised speech at the US Congress just prior to the general elections in Israel was not an exercise in brazen political maneuvering. Furthermore, being well versed in the American political reality, Mr. Netanyahu knew full well that his actions would be seen as a bitter insult to President Obama. Yet he proceeded overlooking the fact that Israel is fully dependent on the generosity of the United States for its military strength and economic well-being. What may have been legitimate concerns of Israel just deepened the personal rift between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama. The bottom line: Mr. Netanyahu lied when he said “it is not personal”.
It remains to be seen how the relations between Mr. Netanyahu and President Trump evolve after he takes office and becomes ultimately responsible for all of America’s foreign policy and actions. One should not be surprised, given Mr. Trump’s unpredictability and the fact that America’s interests not always coincide with those of Israel, if some “rocky road” is ahead for Mr. Netanyahu.