Can Israel force Obama to back off?

Powerful pro-Israelis in U.S. may fund Democrats’ opponent

When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu left Washington in a recent visit after postponing his departure twice there was general agreement in the American media that his visit had been disastrous. Congress gave him its uncritical support of course but his meeting with President Barack Obama went into overtime and ended without a photo op a joint statement or even a public handshake.

At the same time the British government was warning its citizens that they risk having their passports cloned if they travel to Israel. Twelve members of the Israeli hit-team that murdered Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January used passports that had been cloned from genuine British passports by Israeli officials at Ben Gurion airport.

"Such misuse of British passports is intolerable" said Foreign Secretary David Miliband. "The fact that this was done by a country which is a friend with significant diplomatic cultural business and personal ties to the U.K. only adds insult to injury." He then ordered the expulsion of the head of the intelligence services at the Israeli embassy in London.

The French and German governments may do the same thing for the Israeli assassins in Dubai used French and German passports too. But none of that will bother most Israelis since they already see the Europeans as hypocritical and disloyal. “I don’t want to offend dogs on this issue since some dogs are utterly loyal” said Aryeh Eldad leader of the far-right HaTikva Party. “Who are [the British] to judge us on the war on terror?"

But falling out with the loyal American dogs is a different matter entirely. Israel depends very heavily on the U.S. for weapons financial aid and diplomatic backing and now Netanyahu finds himself in a contest of wills with Obama.

His problems with Washington became acute with the announcement during U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel earlier this month that 1600 more homes for Jews would be built in occupied East Jerusalem. It was an “insult to the U.S.” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as it deliberately sabotaged American attempts to restart peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

That at any rate is Washington’s interpretation of the event and it certainly does resemble Netanyahu’s tactics during his previous stint as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. His goal has always been to expand Israeli settlement and control in the occupied territories and ward off any peace deal that hinders that process. So now that he finds himself in a direct confrontation with the White House what are his remaining options?

One obviously is simply to give in and stop expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem while peace talks with the Palestinians proceed. That would cause the immediate collapse of the far-right coalition government Netanyahu now leads but an alternative coalition including the centrist Kadima Party would not be hard to construct.

The main obstacle to that option is Netanyahu himself. Despite his reputation as a slippery character he has always been rock-solid on the issue of land particularly with regard to Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital” he said recently in Washington — and for him that includes the eastern part of Jerusalem that Israel conquered in 1967 and subsequently “annexed.”

International law does not allow that and other countries do not recognize it. More than 40 years after the “annexation” not one foreign embassy has moved up from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But Netanyahu has nailed his colours to the mast on this subject so unless Obama gives in the Israeli-American split will continue.

What other options does Netanyahu have? He can just wait for the wind to change in Washington. The mid-term Congressional elections get closer by the month and Democratic members of Congress who fear that the powerful pro-Israeli lobby will subsidize the campaigns of their opponents will be begging Obama to let Netanyahu have his way.

It would be humiliating for the White House but it’s almost traditional for American presidents to be humbled by Israel and they all survived the experience. And if by some chance Obama sticks to his guns and the confrontation really becomes a political liability for Netanyahu he can always change the subject entirely by attacking Iran.

That is what he’d really like to do anyway. Whenever possible he changes the subject from the thorny question of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to the more comfortable topic of Iran’s alleged drive for nuclear weapons. This is an area in which Israeli and American views are very close (which is not to say that they are necessarily accurate).

Changing the subject in that way would require unilateral Israeli air strikes against Iran and lots of them. Washington would be privately furious that Israel had embroiled it in a dangerous confrontation but publicly it would have to back Israel’s play. So perhaps we should hope that Obama backs down at some earlier stage in the proceedings.

After all it’s not as if the Israeli-Palestinian “proximity talks” that this confrontation is all about were actually going to produce anything useful.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.