03.20.13

How Obama Became Netanyahu

By refusing to challenge Bibi’s approach to the Palestinians, Obama has made it his own. Peter Beinart on why the president’s trip to Israel is probably going to be a missed opportunity.

Since President Obama is reportedly going to Israel in part to improve his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, here’s an opening line he might want to try upon greeting the Israeli leader at Ben Gurion Airport: “Good news, Mr. Prime Minister. I’ve become you.”

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Preparations continue a day ahead of the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama on March 19, 2013, in Jerusalem. (Uriel Sinai/Getty)

When it comes to the Palestinians, at least, it’s largely true. Two basic instincts govern Netanyahu’s behavior toward the Palestinians. The first is domestic political fear. Talk to Israelis who know Netanyahu, and they mostly say that he’s not as right wing as he sometimes appears. They say he recognizes that Israel is heading toward a dangerous one-state reality. But that realization doesn’t matter, they argue, because he lacks the will to confront his political base. Netanyahu’s greatest failure, they insist, is not zealotry but timidity.

The historical record bears that out. In his book The Missing Peace, Dennis Ross recalls Netanyahu telling him that a leader must never abandon his “tribe” of core ideological supporters. In 2010 Newsweek cited a Netanyahu adviser as saying that “Bibi always quotes [his American political consultant] Arthur Finklestein—keep your base.” And Netanyahu has loyally followed that advice since entering politics a quarter century ago. As Ben Caspit and Ilan Kfir note in their 1998 biography, Netanyahu: The Road to Power, Bibi’s first campaign for the Knesset, in 1988, was managed by the Likud leader in the settlement of Ariel. In 1996, when Netanyahu first won the prime ministership, settlers were among his most devoted campaign workers. Avigdor Lieberman, a settler and head of the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, served in the 1990s as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Netanyahu later gave the job to Naftali Bennett, now head of the settler-dominated Habayit Hayehudi. In office, Netanyahu has always created right-leaning coalition governments that constrain his ability to move toward a two-state solution but satisfy his hawkish base.

Bibi’s fear? That alienating his core supporters will cost him his job, and maybe even his life. He watched the first scenario come to pass in 1999 when Bill Clinton pressured him into signing the Wye River Accords, the right rebelled, and his government fell. Former Ariel Sharon adviser Talia Sasson has gone further, claiming that since the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, every Israeli prime minister has feared that a confrontation with the settlers could end their life. In the film The Gatekeepers, former Shin Bet head Carmi Gillon predicts further assassination attempts against Israeli leaders who attempt to give away land.

The other key element of Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinians is arrogance.

How does this make Obama like Netanyahu? Because when it comes to the Palestinians, Obama is also governed by political fear. Obama’s own dovish instincts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are clear. Before he won the Democratic nomination in 2008, Obama spoke openly about Palestinian suffering, about the narrow confines of the Israel debate inside the United States, and about his dim view of Likud. But ever since his bruising, and ultimately futile, conflicts with Netanyahu over settlements in 2009 and the 1967 lines in 2011, Obama has gone to great lengths to avoid Israel-related fights. During the past 18 months, he’s barely uttered a public word about settlements or the 1967 lines. Last year’s Democratic platform excised previous language pledging a “personal” presidential “commitment” to the peace process. And now Obama is traveling to Israel without any specific plans for moving toward a Palestinian state.

On Iran, which Obama sees as more central to America’s national interest, he’s been more willing to challenge his domestic foes. But when it comes to the Palestinians, he’s pulled a Netanyahu: caving to the political right.

But that’s not the only way in which Obama has come to resemble the Israeli leader. The other key element of Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinians is arrogance. Netanyahu may truly want a two-state solution. Yet by rejecting the 1967 parameters and dramatically increasing settlement subsidies, he’s signaling that he expects the Palestinians to accept far less than the 95 percent to 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip they were offered by Bill Clinton and Ehud Olmert. Indeed, after negotiating with Netanyahu’s team in 2010, Palestinian diplomats came to the conclusion that Bibi’s imagined Palestinian state would constitute a mere 60 percent of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s underlying assumption is that if Israel maintains what his ideological hero, Vladimir Jabotinsky, famously called the “Iron Wall” of Zionist power, the Palestinians will eventually accept whatever Israel gives them. Again and again in his writing, Netanyahu has implied that Arabs only understand force. (“Violence is ubiquitous in the political life of all the Arab countries,” he wrote in his heftiest book, A Durable Peace. “It is the primary method of dealing with opponents, both foreign and domestic, both Arab and non-Arab.”) The point was not lost on American policymakers. In 1998, according to Dennis Ross, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lectured Bibi that “you treat the Palestinians with no respect and no dignity.”

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Preparations are made at Ben Gurion Airport for the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama on March 19, 2013, in Tel Aviv. (Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office of Israel,via Getty)

In this way too, Obama has come to resemble Netanyahu. To be sure, the president ostensibly opposes settlement growth and backs a viable Palestinian state. But like Netanyahu, he’s telling Palestinians to sit back and watch passively as Israel seizes more and more of the West Bank. Obama has opposed every Palestinian appeal to the United Nations. He’s refused to pressure Israel to halt settlement growth; indeed, he no longer even talks about it. He won’t even give a shout-out to nonviolent Palestinian protest. Obama’s only advice to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is to negotiate, but Obama won’t push Netanyahu to negotiate along the lines that Obama himself proposed.

Obama is essentially telling Palestinians to keep their heads down until an Israeli leader comes along who wants to create a viable Palestinian state. Or until ordinary Israelis stop worrying about the ultra-Orthodox and the price of cottage cheese and create another peace movement. Or until politics change in Washington. He’s telling Palestinians to relinquish every form of counterpressure they have and put themselves at Israel’s and America’s mercy, even though this trip itself is evidence that without Palestinian counterpressure, America and Israel will do little else except entrench the status quo.

By refusing to challenge Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinians, Obama has made it his own. Like Netanyahu, he’s betting that he can take the Palestinians for granted while tending to his own domestic needs, and that they won’t be able to do anything about it but whine.

But that’s not right. The Palestinians can do something. They can throw Israel, and Barack Obama’s foreign policy, into chaos. For several years now, Israel has benefited enormously from the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation. Today, instead of making its own 19-year-olds patrol Palestinian neighborhoods and towns, Israel largely leaves that to the Palestinian Authority. When Israeli security officials fear Hamas or Islamic jihad is hatching a terrorist plot, they don’t always have to send soldiers to foil it themselves. They can just get on the phone to Abbas’s men.

Take the Palestinians for granted, however, and this relative quiet will eventually give way to something far more frightening. In the words of former Palestinian Authority adviser Ghaith al-Omari, Palestinian security cooperation “was predicated on a path leading to liberation and a new state. Soon, very soon, if it is clear that is not happening, they [Palestinian soldiers and police] will feel like suckers enforcing the occupation, and this security regime—like the Palestinian Authority itself—could dissolve.”

When that happens, it won’t be a crisis only for Benjamin Netanyahu. It will be a crisis for Barack Obama, who will come under enormous pressure to end the violence. Most likely, he’ll try to do so by reviving some kind of peace process. At which point uncharitable observers will look back at this Israel trip and wonder why, like Netanyahu, he waited until it was too late.