Open Zion

12.05.12

How Obama Can Get Tough With Bibi

Recently, the European Union adopted harsh new Iran sanctions, strongly supported by Israel. Shortly thereafter, Israel announced new East Jerusalem settlement construction. The EU’s top official Catherine Ashton, who was about to visit Israelcondemned the announcement in measured terms; Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, publicly told her, in effect, to shove it. Imagine if in response, Ashton had indefinitely postponed her trip. Imagine that Israeli ambassadors in EU capitals were summoned to the local foreign ministries and read the riot act. Imagine that Israeli press had been alerted, leading to headlines about how Prime Minister Netanyahu and Lieberman were squandering the friendship of the EU and European support on Iran for the sake of settlement expansion.

None of that happened. Instead, Lieberman’s comments were politely ignored. Ashton went to Israel. And settlement construction advanced. 

This episode demonstrates how things got to the point where they are today. Netanyahu and Lieberman believe they are unaccountable because they have never been called to account. They’ve seen that their defiance of Israel’s closest allies carries no price, either diplomatically or in the domestic arena. The two are, of course, linked: Israel’s allies acquiescing to Netanyahu treating them as underlings and enemies has only strengthened Netanyahu politically, and added to his aura as “King Bibi.”

For years, people have lamented that the Obama Administration has no leverage with Netanyahu, given Obama’s domestic constraints. It is suggested that short of cutting aid, which isn’t likely to happen, there is nothing that can be done to make Netanyahu heed White House concerns. From the EU, there have been mirror-image lamentations that if the U.S. won’t get tough, Europe can do nothing. The reality is that world leaders, especially from the U.S. and EU, have tremendous leverage in dealing with Netanyahu and Lieberman. Until now they have handcuffed themselves, turning the assessment of “no leverage” into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Last week’s U.N. vote could signal, finally, a change.

The EU, fed up with Israeli provocations and intransigence on settlements, declined to side with Israel against a U.N. resolution that was entirely consistent with EU policy. Following the announcement of Netanyahu’s decision to go nuclear in response to the U.N. vote—with new settlement approvals, including on the two-state-solution-killing settlement of E1—the media has been rife with reports of tough EU diplomatic steps, and still tougher ones are anticipated. This is a promising, if belated, development. For the first time, Netanyahu is getting real push-back, sparking a long overdue debate in Israel about the costs Netanyahu’s reckless actions are imposing on Israel.

All who support peace, security and stability in the Middle East have to hope that the EU will find the political resolve to continue in this vein. We likewise must hope that the Obama Administration will recognize the stakes today, shake off the diplomatic daze that has plagued it for the past several years with respect to Israel, and follow the EU’s example. 

President Obama has plenty of options for action that don’t require Congressional approval. These include summoning the Israeli Ambassador for a talking-down, recalling the U.S. ambassador in Israel for “consultations,” and strong demarches at the level of Foreign Minister or Netanyahu himself—and making these actions public. They include in a meaningful way turning up the heat on settlements, for example by adopting stronger rhetoric (using words like “obstacles to peace” and “illegal,”), by pursuing special labeling requirements for products produced in settlements, or by launching a review of the activities of U.S. groups that support settlements. The Obama Administration could even make clear that it won’t veto U.N. Security Council resolutions on Israel that are consistent with U.S. policy.

The administration could even simply change its tone. It could, for the first time, directly criticize Netanyahu for his extremist actions and challenge his commitment to peace and the two-state solution. President Obama could do what he does best: speak directly to the Israeli people, over the heads of Netanyahu and Lieberman, making his case for policies that are genuinely supportive of Israel. Given Netanyahu’s serial humiliations of Obama during his first term in office and his apparent efforts to see Obama defeated in the last election, such a change in tone seems a long time coming. 

If world leaders return to the usual approach of crying foul over Netanyahu provocations but imposing no consequences, then it will soon be impossible to avoid the conclusion that the game is over for the two-state solution. On the other hand, if real pressure is mustered against those policies of the Netanyahu government that undermine the vital interests of not only Israelis and Palestinians but of the region and countries across the globe, then this U.N .vote could be the game-changer that is required to get the two-state solution back on track.