Nov 14 2013

Will US cave to Netanyahu again?

Published by at 10:20 am under Articles,Palestinian politics



By Daoud Kuttab

Allies don’t usually criticize each other in public. But this is exactly what happened between Israel and the United States.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly attacked each other regarding the two issues that the United States has said are its top foreign policy priorities in the region: Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Kerry spoke about US and world frustration with Israel during a rare joint interview with Israeli and Palestinian reporters. Kerry attacked Israel’s lack of seriousness in the negotiations, warning Israelis about complacency during this temporary quiet on the Palestinian front. He defended Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a nonviolent leader and told Israelis that if they don’t deal with him, they will end up with a violent leader and a possible third intifada. But Kerry’s harshest criticism was over settlements, which, echoing President Barack Obama, he called “illegitimate.” Kerry questioned the wisdom of building settlements on lands that will become a Palestinian state and rejected the idea of new settlements in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, saying that the prisoner release is to keep Palestinians from going to the United Nations.

The verbal attack was labeled a “scolding” by international media and appears to have stunned Israelis. Instead of reacting to it, however, Netanyahu responded angrily to rumors of a possible deal with Iran. Netanyahu repeatedly called what he perceived as being offered to Iran as the worst deal for the world and best one for Iran.

Unlike the Israeli reaction to Kerry’s speech, Netanyahu’s public outbursts appears to have had an effect. No deal was agreed to in Iran despite the extension of the talks for a third day, and Obama was forced to call the Israeli leader to calm him down.

It’s highly unusual for a small country such as Israel to get away with what it appears to be doing. If the United States were to publicly scold any other country, it’s unlikely that that country would continue to receive the massive financial and political support that Israel continues to enjoy from the United States. And if another country were to publicly attack the United States the way Netanyahu did over the Iran deal, that country would surely lose any special status it had with the world’s superpower.

While Israel, for various domestic and historical reasons, can survive a public brawl with the United States, there are ramifications that might not emerge in the short term. While Kerry has denied that the United States is preparing some kind of January 2014 bridging proposal to overcome the current stalemate in the talks, his denial sounded weak. Kerry’s use of the present tense to describe the current US position doesn’t rule out that this could happen in the coming months. In the peace process, American frustrations at the absence of progress might lead them to insist that US envoy Martin Indyk is not kept outside the negotiating room, but allowed in and given a more active role in the negotiations.

Kerry has also hinted that the United States is pushing for a larger role for the Jordanians. Jordan is one of two Arab countries that have signed a peace agreement with Israel, and its involvement is seen as an attempt to both lessen Palestinian isolation and provide a reliable third party with which Israelis are generally comfortable.

While attempts to shake up the stalled peace talks will be welcomed, the current public fight will damage Israel’s standing not only with its single ally, but more importantly with the American people, who don’t like to see their own government and its policies publicly trashed. This tussle is also likely to have an internal effect. In the past, Israeli leaders who have publicly taken on the United States have suffered in elections as the Israeli public and media have little patience with leaders who risk the country’s relations with the United States.

Netanyahu is taking a big chance by vexing the United States. While it is possible that he could get burned, past experience has also shown that Washington can be numb to Israeli public attacks. In his first term, Obama made the settlements an issue with Israel, only to retract and blink first. This time, the US president is in his second term and is much more experienced in dealing with Israel.

The next talks with Iran are scheduled for Nov. 20, and the current peace talks are scheduled to end in April. Will the United States pursue its national and world interest this time, or will it be the first to blink again?

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