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The Mideast Surprise of 2013?

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Posted on Dec 21, 2012
AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early 2012.

By Ira Chernus, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

However Peter Beinart, editor of the Open Zion page at the Daily Beast and author of The Crisis of Zionism, claims administration officials have told him that such behind-the-scenes maneuvering is Obama’s new strategy. Publicly, Washington will “stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once the U.S. stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course.”

As Beinart suggests, international isolation is what worries Israelis most. A cut-off of U.S. military aid would be troubling indeed but in itself hardly fatal, since Israel already has the strongest military in the Middle East and a sizeable military-industrial-high-tech complex of its own.

What Israel needs, above all, from the U.S. is diplomatic support to protect it from international rejection, economic boycotts, and a diplomatic tsunami that could turn Israel into a pariah state. Political analysts have long assumed that any Israeli leader who loses the protection of the U.S. would pay the price at the polls.

That’s why some insiders, like Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, think Obama can “lay down the law” to Israel on E1—behind closed doors, of course. The influential Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer puts the situation in the simplest of terms: “It is clear who is boss.”

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The rules of Israel’s political game, however, may also be changing. And that’s a key to understanding why 2013 could be the year of confrontation between the leaderships of the two countries. Netanyahu has allied his Likud party with the strongest party to its right, Yisrael Beitenu. To seal his victory in the upcoming election on January 22nd, he’s put his political fate in the hands (or talons) of his country’s hawks.

If he wins (which everyone assumes he will), he’ll have to satisfy those hawks—and they don’t care about shrewd secret bargaining or holding on to allies. What they want, above all, are public displays of unilateral strength made with much fanfare, exactly like the recent settlement-expansion announcement and the accompanying threat to turn E1 into an Israeli suburb. Many observers have suggested that the primary audience was Netanyahu’s new, ever-more-right-wing partners. Plenty of them still don’t trust him, especially after the ceasefire in Gaza under pressure from Washington.

Most analysts saw the Israeli announcement as a public punishment of the Palestinians for their success at the U.N. The BBC’s Kevin Connolly had a different interpretation: Israeli hawks felt that letting the U.N. vote pass without some strong response “would be seen as a sign of weakness.”

Israeli political life has always been haunted by a fear of weakness and a conviction that Jews are condemned to vulnerability in a world full of anti-Semites eager to destroy them. The hawks’ worldview is built upon this myth of insecurity. It demands instant retaliation so that Jews can show the world—but more importantly themselves—that they are strong enough to resist every real or (more often) imagined threat.

To keep the show going, they must have enemies. So they seek out confrontations and, at the same time, “actually welcome isolation,” as the venerable Israeli commentator Uri Avnery says, “because it confirms again that the entire world is anti-Semitic, and not to be trusted.” 

“For the sake of his target voter,” writes another Israeli columnist, Bradley Burston, “it’s in Netanyahu’s direct interest for the world to hate Israelis” and for Obama to be “fed up and furious with Israel. That is, at least until Election Day.”

Obama owes the Israeli prime minister nothing after the recent U.S. election season in which Netanyahu practically campaigned for Mitt Romney and publicly demanded that the U.S. threaten an attack on Iran –- a demand that the administration publicly rebuffed.  The president might finally be fed up, and so in a mood to ratchet up private pressure on the Israelis.

If Obama is planning to put more heat on them, he will undoubtedly wait until after their election. Then, in the late winter months of 2013, before spring comes and Netanyahu can revive the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, the president might well provoke a showdown.

He has good reason. If he can secure a definitive halt to settlement expansion, he can bring the Palestinians back to the table with a promise to press Israel to negotiate seriously for a two-state solution. In a chaotic region where the U.S. seems to be losing ground weekly, Washington could score sizeable foreign policy points, especially in improving relations with regional powers Turkey and Egypt.


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