With less than a month left in his presidency, Barack Obama has managed to infuriate the Israeli right by hardening America’s stance on the construction of West Bank settlements.
Whatever the merits of their quarrel with the American president, though — and there are leftwingers in Israel and Jewish supporters of Obama in the United States who are disappointed as well — the over-the-top reaction from the Israeli right is unjustified and, more importantly, ill-advised.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads Israel’s ruling Likud party, accused the Obama Administration of not only failing to protect Israel at the United Nations (as if it has an obligation to), but of colluding in a diplomatic “gang-up” to pass a Security Council resolution that condemns Jewish settlement activity in territory that the rest of the world considers occupied.
The same line was trotted out by lower-ranking officials and the same conspiracy theory was peddled in the Israeli right-wing press.
It is also a distraction. The “how” (and Obama officials maintain they were only marginally involved in drafting the resolution) is less important than the thing itself: the fact that the United States, for the first time in 35 years, allowed a UN resolution criticizing Jewish settlements to pass.
That’s what Israeli officials should be worried about. And they should heed Secretary of State John Kerry’s warning that the status quo is “leading toward one state and perpetual occupation,” as opposed to a two-state solution, which is still the official policy of both Israel and the United States.
Instead, Netanyahu and his cabinet have lashed out at Obama and Kerry personally and publicly longed for the incoming Donald Trump Administration, which they expect will be more pro-Israel.
Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, said the proper response to Kerry’s words was for Israel to annex East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements outright.
He advised the American diplomat to read a Bible: “Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital for 3,000 years,” he said. “That is in the Bible, open it and read.”
Kerry is a practicing Roman Catholic, who was an altar boy in his youth and considered becoming a priest as an adolescent. He probably doesn’t need to be lectured about the contents of the Bible.
But it’s Bennett and Netanyahu who feel they’re being lectured to.
“Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by foreign leaders,” the former said.
For someone who is also from a tiny country that also relies on the United States for its security — and who genuinely wishes Israel well — such condescending remarks toward American officials are dumbfounding.
Bennett and Netanyahu talk as though Israel is entitled to American support!
Leaders here in the Netherlands understand that Americans owe them no favors and that the relationship is lopsided. That is why they have time and again supported the United States, sometimes — as most recently in the case of the Iraq War — against their better judgement.
Netanyahu’s Israel shows no such deference at the very time it is becoming less important to the United States.
American governments supported Israel during the Cold War as a bulwark against Soviet-supported regimes in the Middle East.
The rationale for the alliance has become murkier since.
As a liberal democracy, Israel makes the region a safer place simply because of what it is. But it is precisely Israel’s liberal democracy that Americans like Obama and Kerry fear is at risk if the country doesn’t resolve its disputes with the Palestinians.
No clear-eyed analysis of Israel’s strategic worth to the United States could justify a $38 billion aid pact — the largest such pledge of bilateral assistance in either nation’s history. Yet that is what Obama signed only three months ago.
One bad word about settlements, though, and, poof, Obama has “betrayed” Israel.
Betting on one horse
Israel can surely expect a better deal from Trump. The president-elect recently tweeted, “Stay strong Israel, January 20 is fast approaching!”
But betting on one of America’s two major political parties to preserve the alliance is a bad idea.
Republicans are not going to be in power indefinitely and their eagerness to politicize American support for Israel should worry Israeli leaders. The day Israel becomes a partisan issue in America is the day it needs to start looking for another patron.
The Israeli right, not the American left, is bringing that day closer and closer.