Bibi Netanyahu: The Great Procrastinator

What lies behind the Israeli PM’s obstructionist tactics? A career-long unwillingness to negotiate.

NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 08: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on while meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at U.N. headquarters November 8, 2010 in New York City. Israeli media reported that Netanyahu will announce the Israeli withdrawal from Ghajar, a village straddling the Lebanese-Israeli border.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Michael Hirsh
Nov. 27, 2013, midnight

Ex­ist­en­tial is­sues cut both ways. That is per­haps what is most un­nerv­ing — and, for Is­rael and the United States, po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous — about Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s seem­ing un­will­ing­ness to coun­ten­ance any agree­ment, either with the Ir­a­ni­ans or the Palestini­ans. Net­an­yahu wants con­front­a­tion, not ne­go­ti­ation, with Tehran — yet that ap­proach has brought Tehran from a mere 164 cent­ri­fuges at a single pi­lot plant a dec­ade ago to a net­work of secret nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies and 19,000 cent­ri­fuges today, and to the brink of nuc­le­ar-weapons status. Net­an­yahu wants to put off talks on a Palestini­an state, yet many Is­rael­is (in­clud­ing the erstwhile uber-hawk Ar­i­el Shar­on, be­fore he was si­lenced by a stroke) have come to real­ize that time is against Is­rael on that score be­cause there may soon be more Ar­abs than Jews un­der Is­raeli con­trol, in­clud­ing the Palestini­ans in the West Bank and Ga­za, and Is­rael could come to be seen as an apartheid rather than a Jew­ish state.

What needs to be un­der­stood about Bibi Net­an­yahu, who may prove in com­ing months to be the chief obstacle to a longer-term rap­proche­ment between the U.S. and Ir­an, is that non-ne­go­ti­ation has been an art­icle of faith with him for his en­tire polit­ic­al ca­reer. It is an at­ti­tude that goes back to his first term as prime min­is­ter in the late 1990s, when he privately boas­ted that he had “de facto put an end to the Oslo Ac­cords.”

Yes, Net­an­yahu has ample reas­on to sound alarms about the cur­rent state of ne­go­ti­ations with both the Ir­a­ni­ans and the Palestini­ans. Both sets of talks are fraught with risks. But the ar­gu­ment can be made — and is be­ing made, both by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and many Is­rael­is — that the far great­er risk to Is­rael’s fu­ture and to U.S. strategy in the Middle East lies in con­tinu­ing a policy of con­front­a­tion.

What is most dis­turb­ing, even to some Is­raeli de­fense and in­tel­li­gence ex­perts, is Net­an­yahu’s blunt un­will­ing­ness to com­prom­ise on either is­sue. Amos Yadlin, the former head of the IDF’s Mil­it­ary In­tel­li­gence, told Is­raeli TV that the hard-line cri­ti­cism of the in­ter­im nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an misses a subtle but cru­cial point: The terms are good enough for a tem­por­ary freeze that will al­low the ne­go­ti­ations to con­tin­ue — which is what this is — even though they would not suf­fice for a per­man­ent deal, which would re­quire dis­man­tle­ment. But the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also un­der­stands that; it has been care­ful to say that the real talks are only now be­gin­ning. Yadlin ad­ded the Ir­a­ni­ans “un­der­stand that this is a test,” and it would be “il­lo­gic­al for them to breach [the in­ter­im deal] in the next six months” by re­start­ing en­rich­ment to­ward weapons-grade urani­um. He noted that Pres­id­ent Obama has com­mit­ted him­self to en­sur­ing there is no Ir­a­ni­an bomb, and he said that the un­pre­ced­en­ted in­ter­na­tion­al con­sensus on a tough sanc­tions re­gime, in which Net­an­yahu puts so much stock, might well have col­lapsed had the U.S. held out for a tough­er deal that would have been tan­tamount to Ir­a­ni­an sur­render.

Nor was there any chance that such a sur­render was go­ing to hap­pen. New Ir­a­ni­an Pres­id­ent Has­san Rouh­ani and his for­eign min­is­ter, Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif, needed to ap­pease their own hard-liners back home with some sanc­tions re­lief, in a way that Net­an­yahu re­fuses to ac­know­ledge.

Net­an­yahu’s ob­struc­tion­ism has a long his­tory. A video­tape of him speak­ing to a gath­er­ing of right-wing set­tlers in 2001 is as re­veal­ing of his true feel­ings about the Palestini­ans as his good friend Mitt Rom­ney’s in­fam­ous “47 per­cent” video­tape was of the former Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate’s be­liefs about the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate. In Net­an­yahu’s first term, he ap­peared to ne­go­ti­ate at Wye River in 1998 and praised Pres­id­ent Clin­ton for his ef­forts to come to an in­ter­im deal, but he later re­vealed to the set­tlers that he’d only been gam­ing the pres­id­ent. Net­an­yahu al­lowed that he had said he would hon­or the Oslo Ac­cords, but then de­scribed how he had un­der­mined them by eli­cit­ing Amer­ic­an agree­ment to let him define se­cur­ity zones that Is­rael could main­tain. Then he ef­fect­ively defined the “en­tire Jordan Val­ley” as a mil­it­ary zone. “From that mo­ment on, I de facto put an end to the Oslo Ac­cords,” he said.

Amer­ic­an ne­go­ti­at­ors were furi­ous with his tac­tics — just as Obama has been since 2009. “Net­an­yahu was nearly in­suf­fer­able, lec­tur­ing us and telling us how to deal with the Ar­abs,” U.S. ne­go­ti­at­or Den­nis Ross wrote in his 2004 mem­oir, The Miss­ing Peace. “After Net­an­yahu was gone, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton ob­served: ‘He thinks he is the su­per­power, and we are here to do whatever he re­quires.’” In his suc­cess­ful cam­paign against Net­an­yahu in 1999, Ehud Barak used a slo­gan pro­posed by his U.S. cam­paign strategists Bob Shrum, Stan­ley Green­berg, and James Carville: “Tak­uah, tak­uah, tak­uah,” or “Stuck, stuck, stuck.” Barak later pushed for a peace deal at great speed, cul­min­at­ing in Yass­er Ara­fat’s heart­break­ing re­buff to Barak’s his­tor­ic­ally un­pre­ced­en­ted of­fer at Camp Dav­id in 2000. Barak’s suc­cessor, Ar­i­el Shar­on, turned over Ga­za un­der a cloud of con­tro­versy and was plan­ning to uni­lat­er­ally dis­en­gage from some two-thirds of the West Bank, ac­cord­ing to his former ad­viser, when he suffered a stroke in Janu­ary 2006.

To be fair, Hamas’ elect­or­al vic­tory in 2006 — elec­tions en­cour­aged by the Amer­ic­ans as part of the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s demo­cracy pan­acea for the re­gion — and later seizure of power in Ga­za has made ne­go­ti­ations with the Palestini­an Au­thor­ity vastly more dif­fi­cult. Even so, Net­an­yahu has, for the most part, just star­ted up new set­tle­ments.

Net­an­yahu, of course, has an im­port­ant role to play as the “bad cop” to Amer­ic­an out­reach, es­pe­cially on Ir­an. “Why should the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment praise this deal?” Philip Ze­likow, who helped to set the Ir­an deal in mo­tion as coun­selor to then-Sec­ret­ary of State Con­doleezza Rice in 2006, said at a for­um in Wash­ing­ton on Tues­day. “Why should they say any­thing good about it all? I don’t see any­thing in it for them say­ing so.”

And yet the very real fear about Net­an­yahu is that, for him, this stance is not just a tac­tic; it rep­res­ents a fun­da­ment­al world­view that will pre­vent Is­rael from align­ing it­self with U.S. ef­forts to re­make the geo­pol­it­ics of the re­gion as long as he is in of­fice.

As we’ve seen in re­cent weeks, dur­ing the 50th an­niversary of the Kennedy as­sas­sin­a­tion, Amer­ic­ans rel­ish his­tor­ic­al “what ifs.” What if Os­wald had missed in Dal­las: Would we have avoided the dis­aster of Vi­et­nam? What if, in the 2000 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, those 500-odd votes in Flor­ida had gone the oth­er way: Very likely we would have avoided a dec­ade of dis­aster in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. Is­rael­is can play their own ver­sion of this sad game: What if Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Ra­bin’s as­sas­sin, had been stopped, and that most vis­ion­ary of re­cent Is­raeli lead­ers had been able to pur­sue his plans to pur­sue Oslo and hand over part of the West Bank? And what if Tzipi Livni, the heir to the pro-Palestini­an-state Kadima Party star­ted by Shar­on, had been able to muster the votes to form her own co­ali­tion in 2009, mak­ing her prime min­is­ter rather than Net­an­yahu?

Livni is now in charge of the Palestini­an ne­go­ti­ations un­der Net­an­yahu, but it is very doubt­ful she has the free­dom of ac­tion she needs to make a deal. Not when it’s very likely that her prime min­is­ter doesn’t want one.

What We're Following See More »
NEVER TRUMP
USA Today Weighs in on Presidential Race for First Time Ever
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump." That's the message from USA Today editors, who are making the first recommendation on a presidential race in the paper's 34-year history. It's not exactly an endorsement; they make clear that the editorial board "does not have a consensus for a Clinton endorsement." But they state flatly that Donald Trump is, by "unanimous consensus of the editorial board, unfit for the presidency."

Source:
COMMISSIONERS NEED TO DELIBERATE MORE
FCC Pushes Vote on Set-Top Boxes
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Federal regulators on Thursday delayed a vote on a proposal to reshape the television market by freeing consumers from cable box rentals, putting into doubt a plan that has pitted technology companies against cable television providers. ... The proposal will still be considered for a future vote. But Tom Wheeler, chairman of the F.C.C., said commissioners needed more discussions."

Source:
UNTIL DEC. 9, ANYWAY
Obama Signs Bill to Fund Government
11 hours ago
THE LATEST
REDSKINS IMPLICATIONS
SCOTUS to Hear Case on Offensive Trademarks
11 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"The Supreme Court is taking up a First Amendment clash over the government’s refusal to register offensive trademarks, a case that could affect the Washington Redskins in their legal fight over the team name. The justices agreed Thursday to hear a dispute involving an Asian-American rock band called the Slants, but they did not act on a separate request to hear the higher-profile Redskins case at the same time." Still, any precedent set by the case could have ramifications for the Washington football team.

Source:
IT’S ALL CLINTON
Reliable Poll Data Coming in RE: Debate #1
13 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
×