The Bigger Picture
Published on April 22nd 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Last week I noted that I believe the best way to pressure Israel to begin serious negotiations to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians is to condition America’s financial support on a halt to building new settlements. But I also question whether or not President Obama is both willing and able to transform America’s angry demands that Israel halt settlement building, into actions that will coerce Israel to stop this damaging (for peace prospects) policy.
Although I would obviously prefer quick and decisive action, I also know this is highly unlikely with the 2010 mid-term elections looming less than seven months away. Unfortunately for the Palestinian peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also counting on this fact of American electoral politics to forestall any unpleasant consequences for at least seven months and possibly much longer should Republicans make big gains in the upcoming elections.
However, this doesn’t mean Netanyahu is off the hook until after America’s November mid-term elections. President Obama may not be as popular in Israel as he is in the rest of the world, but the Israeli government also knows that Obama will be President for at least two and quite likely six more years after the November elections. Therefore, some improvement in relations between the two countries remains a priority for Israel lest the Jewish state run the risk of seeing the current spat between two marital partners turn into a messy divorce.
As I noted last week, Israel is not economically self-sufficient and continues to rely heavily on US foreign assistance and loan guarantees to keep its economy afloat. The longer term concern of the current Israeli government is that the last time there was a dust up over Israeli settlement building in the early 1990s; the then Republican Bush administration withheld those loan guarantees for a time, thereby putting a considerable strain on Israel’s economy. Netanyahu knows that if America did this once before, it could just as easily do so again.
Netanyahu’s dilemma is that he needs to begin to rebuild the trust that once existed between America and Israel or face a possible financial squeeze in the first quarter of the New Year (2011) when Israel traditionally gets all of its American foreign aid at one time. Because it is Israel’s main financier, any delays by the United States in providing this assistance and or withholding loan guarantees will be felt within a matter of months.
But the Democratic Obama administration simply doesn’t trust Netanyahu to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians.
For their part, the Palestinians also don’t trust the current Netanyahu led Israeli government to negotiate seriously either. In a recent interview the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat noted this saying that “We have a trust level below zero between the two sides.” Erekat wants the United States to take a direct role in the negotiations because he believes that any attempt at direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is doomed from the start.
Some US-Israel foreign policy analysts think this latest settlement dispute will put enough pressure on Netanyahu that he will modify his stance on settlement building and make enough concessions to warrant more substantive negotiations with the Palestinians. While I agree that Netanyahu is definitely feeling some pressure to do something to appease Israel’s biggest ally, I also think it will take more than just public remonstrations to move Netanyahu to make any serious concessions because of internal political pressure from his coalition partners.
Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party won a very narrow victory over its centrist Kadima party opposition in the last elections, so he was only able to form a government by enlisting the support of Israel’s most extreme right wing parties. Those right wing extremists have no interest in negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians and are at the forefront of pushing for even more settlements than the limited numbers the Israeli government has already permitted,
But Netanyahu also faces resistance from within his own Likud party as well. Likud’s deputy speaker of Parliament, Danny Danon, also supports more settlement building and says that Secretary of State Clinton’s “meddling in internal Israeli decisions regarding the development of our capital, Jerusalem, is uninvited and unhelpful.” So according to Israel’s right wingers, even though America keeps Israel afloat financially, American meddling on settlement building is the problem, not Israeli intransigence? Yeah right!
But what Mr. Danon and other right wing politicians in Israel have yet to realize is that American public opinion has slowly started to come around to the view that has long been held by the vast majority of both Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts; settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential if the United States wants to dry up support for al Qaeda’s pseudo-religious political terrorism within Muslim communities around the world.
Make no mistake, the lobbying influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is still very strong on Capitol Hill, but it is no longer the powerful force it once was. The American news media has also begun to publish more stories that cast Israel in a less favorable light because Americans are finally starting to realize that this Israeli-Palestinian conflict might actually be fueling anti-American sentiment and support for al Qaeda in the wider Muslim community around the world.
When, not if, a majority of Americans finally come to the conclusion that our unstinting support for Israel is putting our nation at risk in terms of further al Qaeda inspired terrorist attacks, then American politicians, regardless of their political party affiliation, will begin to support applying more pressure on Israel to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians. I could be wrong, but I have a very real sense that this will happen much sooner than Mr. Netanyahu and his right wing supporters expect, rather than later. While America has a huge financial and emotional investment in the state of Israel, it has a much bigger emotional and financial investment in its own security.