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
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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.

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