The man who leapt to congratulate election winners such as Vladimir Putin has had a markedly different attitude toward Israel’s newly elected leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. After delaying a congratulatory phone call this past week, Obama then used the call to lecture Netanyahu and threaten a change in U.S.-Israel relations.
First, the lecture. The New York Times reported yesterday that Obama gave
a strongly worded lecture [to] Mr. Netanyahu about an Election Day Facebook posting in which the Israeli leader warned that Arab voters were going to the polls “in droves,” an assertion widely interpreted as an attempt to suppress the Arab vote. “We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions — that although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly,” Mr. Obama said. “If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also, I think, starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.”
It is quite obvious that Netanyahu made no effort whatsoever to “suppress the Arab vote,” nor could he, and if the New York Times and Obama believe that, it is simply more proof that they are awash in ignorance and prejudice about Israel. Netanyahu’s remark was meant to get his own voters to the polls, which was clear in the words he used: He warned about leftist parties and NGOs getting their turnout up and was telling his voters they had better match it. Obama’s lecturing Israel, the region’s only real democracy, two days after a totally free election, is quite amazing — considering that in June 2009, for example, he stayed dead silent while the ayatollahs crushed the Green Movement and its demands for democracy in Iran. Many people consider Netanyahu’s remark unwise or offensive for various reasons, but the Obama interpretation is illogical and indefensible.
The lecture continued, the Times tells us, getting to Netanyahu’s opposition to establishment of a Palestinian state “today” — Netanyahu’s word — or during his premiership. Here’s what Obama said:
We can’t just in perpetuity maintain the status quo, expand settlements — that’s not a recipe for stability in the region. . . . We take him at his word that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.
These comments are equally indefensible. First, we see here again the old, discredited idea that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict — not terrorism, not the Iranian nuclear-weapons program, not war in Syria, not ISIS — is central to the region’s problems. If there is no progress on this one front, Obama warns, we can be certain there will be “a chaotic situation in the region.” Why would that be? Because the status quo is “unsustainable,” I guess. That “status quo” has been sustained for a remarkable 48 years since the 1967 war, so exactly why it is all of a sudden unsustainable is mysterious.
Netanyahu’s position on Palestinian statehood is shared by the vast majority of Israelis — by those on the left and right, and by many who voted against him. It’s the ultimate goal, but it isn’t possible any time soon. PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas rejected the Israeli offer in 2008 that would have given him 96 percent of the West Bank, some Israeli land to make up for that missing 4 percent (which is home to major Israeli settlements), and shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. If he rejected that offer, he will reject them all. They will never get better than that. Abbas will never sign any final peace agreement and is not viewed by Israelis as a serious partner for peace.
Moreover, an agreement that pulls the IDF out of the West Bank right now, with ISIS and Hezbollah and Iranian troops roaming around Syria, is a formula for war and terror in Jordan and Israel. So when Netanyahu says there can be no deal today or during the next few years, he is describing a reality widely understood in the region, not just in Israel. Perhaps Obama does not understand it, but if so, he isn’t trying very hard.
Note also his remark about how Netanyahu is “expanding settlements.” Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics just reported a 52 percent drop in housing starts in the West Bank in 2014 versus 2013. Settlements have grown a lot less in Netanyahu’s years in power than in those of his two predecessors, Sharon and Olmert. Moreover, under Netanyahu the growth in settlement population has been mostly in the major blocks. Though population in those blocks may be growing, they are not expanding physically nor are new settlements being started, so the “peace map” is not changing. It’s simply untrue, as Obama seems to imply, that settlements are expanding physically and gobbling up the future Palestinian state.
Once upon a time — actually, in 2009 — Netanyahu bowed to U.S. pressure and imposed a ten-month moratorium on construction in the settlements. Hillary Clinton, secretary of state back then, praised this move as “unprecedented.” It did not bring Abbas to the negotiating table, and it seems Obama has just plain forgotten about it. It would contradict his narrative that Netanyahu doesn’t want peace and must be punished. That narrative is crucial to his threat that, in response to Netanyahu, the U.S. might stop defending Israel from vicious attacks in the United Nations, and look to “other options.”
What’s happening here is not a reasonable U.S. reaction to what Netanyahu said, but an effort by Obama to find some excuse, any excuse, to change our policy toward Israel. Republicans will fight such a change. But the coming weeks and months may be a test of Israel’s self-proclaimed supporters in the Democratic party, among them Hillary Clinton. Will they let Obama get away with abandoning Israel like this?
— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Tested by Zion: the Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.