US president Barack Obama today welcomes arguably his least favourite foreign leader to the White House. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit neatly coincides with the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). That event offers both men a chance to appeal to some of Israel’s most ardent American supporters. We can therefore expect to hear repeated references to the “common interests”, “unshakeable bonds” and “shared values” of the two countries.
This familiar rhetoric is misleading at best and at worst simply wrong. No states have identical interests, and Israel and America are at odds on two vital issues: Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Obama should continue to rebuff Israel’s efforts to push him into military confrontation with Tehran, while reminding Mr Netanyahu the true danger to Israel lies in its refusal to allow a viable Palestinian state…
Mr Obama and his advisers – including the military – see things differently. They do not want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, but they do not believe a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel. After all, Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, and could obliterate Iran if attacked. US intelligence is also confident Tehran has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons. Indeed, US leaders worry that, no matter who does it, an attack would convince Iran it needs its own nuclear deterrent. They are correct.
In short, while one can understand why Israeli hardliners might want the US to strike Iran, Washington has no interest in pursuing this course and Mr Obama should make this crystal clear to Mr Netanyahu…
In fact, the Palestinian issue is the real existential threat to Israel. More than 500,000 Israeli Jews now live in the occupied territories, and continued settlement building will lead to a single state between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. Given demographic trends, this “Greater Israel” could not be both a Jewish state and a full democracy. Instead, it would be an apartheid state, threatening Israel’s legitimacy and long-term survival. As Ehud Olmert, former prime minister, said in 2007, if the two-state solution fails, Israel “will face a South African-like struggle for equal voting rights”. And if that happens, he warned, “the state of Israel is finished”.
Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama have clashed repeatedly on the Palestinian issue, and each time Mr Obama has backed down. He is unlikely to press the issue between now and November’s election. Instead, he will act as if the US and Israel remain the closest of allies.
If only this were true. In fact, this situation highlights the dysfunctional nature of the “special relationship”. If the US and Israel had a normal relationship, Mr Obama could make his disagreements with Mr Netanyahu plain, and use the bully pulpit and America’s substantial leverage to help Israel rethink its course. But Aipac and other groups in the formidable Israel lobby insist politicians admit no daylight between what Israel wants and what Washington says and does. For Mr Obama, acknowledging these obvious strategic differences would alienate crucial political allies, leading Democratic party fundraisers and Israel’s supporters in the media, imperilling his re-election prospects.
Because war entails significant costs and risks, and brings no lasting benefits, the best hope is that Mr Obama will continue to deflect pressure for military action, no matter what he says in public. Meanwhile, the greatest danger to Israel – the occupation – continues unchecked.
Avi Shlaim adds:
It is clear what kind of Israeli prime minister President Obama will be receiving at the White House today. Benjamin Netanyahu is a bellicose, right-wing Israeli nationalist, a rejectionist on the subject of Palestinian national rights, and a reactionary who is deeply wedded to the status quo. Nationalism has an in-built tendency to go to extremes and Netanyahu’s brand is no exception. A nation has been defined as ‘a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours’. This definition fits the Likud leader on both counts: he has a selective and self-righteous view of his own country’s history and he is driven by distrust and disdain, if not outright hatred towards the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. This hostility towards Arabs is the central thread that runs through his public utterances, books, and policies as prime minister…
The coalition government headed by Netanyahu is the most aggressively right-wing, diplomatically intransigent, and overtly racist government in Israel’s history. His Foreign minister is Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, Israel is Our Home. Lieberman has set his face against any compromise with the Palestinians and he also favours subjecting Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens to an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu’s Defence Minister is Ehud Barak who destroyed and then defected from the Labour Party to form a small break-away faction called Independence. A former chief-of-staff, Barak suffers from a déformation professionelle: he regards diplomacy as the extension of war by other means. Barak is a bitkhonist, a security-ist who wants 100 per cent security for Israel which means zero security for the Palestinians…
Barrack Obama reiterates at regular intervals that the bond between America and Israel is ‘unbreakable’. If anyone can break this bond, it is Benjamin Netanyahu. Early on in his presidency, Obama identified a settlement freeze as the essential precondition for progress in the American-sponsored peace process. During his Cairo speech, on 4 June 2009, he made it clear that ‘The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements’. Obama had three confrontations with Netanyahu over the demand for a settlement freeze and he backed down each time. Moreover, Obama has all but turned over to Netanyahu the American veto on UN Security Council. Since 1978 America has used the veto forty-two times to defeat resolutions critical of Israel. The most egregious abuse of this power happened in February 2011 when a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion was supported by fourteen members and killed by America. That was a veto of America’s own foreign policy.
How can a jimcrack politician from a small country defy the most powerful man in the world and get away with it? At least part of the answer lies in the enduring power of the Israel lobby. Ever since 1967 the lobby has opposed every international plan for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute that was not to Israel’s liking. But any proposal for a military strike against Israel’s enemies can count on the support of Israel’s friends in Washington, Iraq in 2003 and Iran today being the most obvious examples. In the case of Iran, Netanyahu is the war-monger in chief and he is doing his utmost to drag America into a dangerous confrontation that cannot possibly serve American interests. The region is like a tinder box and one spark could set off a major conflagration.
On 5 March, President Obama is due to receive the Israeli prime minister in the White House. At their first meeting, on 19 May 2009, Obama’s priority was Palestine whereas Netanyahu only wanted to talk about the Iranian threat. Subsequently, Netanyahu succeeded in imposing his agenda on his ally. Today the peace process is in tatters and the war hysteria against Iran is gathering force. The challenge for Obama is to reign in his reckless junior ally and to reorder American priorities in the Middle East. The main threat to regional stability is not Iran but the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. And the main source of hostility towards America throughout the Arab and Muslim lands is Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and America’s complicity in this oppression. If Obama cannot stand up to Bibi Netanyahu in defence of vital American interests, who will he stand up to? His own credibility as the leader of the free world is on the line.