Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to speak to the nation is encouraging the Obama administration to intensify pressure on Israel. He is creating uncertainty both in Israel and among its friends throughout the world. If he fails to act soon, he will justifiably stand accused of failing the test of leadership during a time of national crisis.
Few would envy the responsibility resting on the shoulders of the prime minister during these excessively trying times. Yet until now, Netanyahu has succeeded beyond expectations in achieving a political consensus that is rare in this highly volatile political arena.
By refusing to join the government, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni obliged him to form a narrow coalition which he deftly extended by incorporating Ehud Barak’s diminished Labor Party.
From the outset, the greatest challenge facing the new government was the election of US President Barack Obama. It was evident from Netanyahu’s first meeting, despite Obama’s passionate pre-electoral undertakings to the contrary, that Israel was facing a hostile administration determined to appease the Arabs.
To the astonishment and admiration of most Israelis, Netanyahu initially managed to avoid confrontations and skillfully steered a preponderantly right-leaning government into adopting centrist policies. He managed to overcome Likud’s long-standing opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, and even steered his government into temporarily freezing Israeli settlements in order to placate Obama – something his more dovish predecessors would never have countenanced, and an act which even the US secretary of state praised as “unprecedented.”
BUT IT is now clear that, irrespective of what concessions Netanyahu offered, short of capitulating to all the one-sided US demands, Obama was determined to find grounds for a confrontation in order to “win over the Arabs.”
He found his pretext with the unfortunate timing of a routine announcement of a residential development in the heart of Jewish east Jerusalem which coincided with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. Had that not transpired, an alternative pretext would inevitably have been devised.
It is therefore unfair to blame Netanyahu for the breakdown with Obama.
What transpired subsequently can only be described as an ambush. After acceptance of his profuse apology, Netanyahu made a major tactical error by convincing himself that a meeting with Obama, Clinton and other administration officials would achieve reconciliation. He was thus destabilized by the humiliation and harsh demands by Obama in private conversations which were subsequently leaked to the media.
Netanyahu’s speech at AIPAC before his meeting with Obama was the last significant policy statement he has made to date. Since then, he has hardly been heard, and brief remarks attributed to him are apologetic and defensive. He conveyed the impression that he was denying reality by repeatedly maintaining that Israel’s alliance with the United States was unchanged, and ignoring the insults leveled against him and his government.
The disarray in the dysfunctional Prime Minister’s Office was exemplified by its crass refusal to accept flowers donated by our American Christian friends seeking to convey solidarity with Israel, fearing that acknowledging such a symbolic gift would be considered an affront to Obama.
Netanyahu’s principal concern was to ensure that consensus would prevail. Thus, no statement was issued after lengthy meetings of the security cabinet, and the absence of any clear policy direction left Israelis and friends of Israel bewildered.
Since the Ben-Gurion era, differences have occurred between the United States and Israeli leaders. But it is hard to visualize any US president behaving towards Begin, Rabin or Sharon with the contempt Obama displayed to Netanyahu. It is also inconceivable that any earlier prime minister would have held back from articulating Israel’s case in response to such a preposterous and one-sided offensive. Netanyahu was not obliged to emulate his mentor Begin in responding to Obama. He could equally have taken a cue from Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
THIS CRISIS will not abate of its own accord. If Netanyahu fails to speak up soon, he will discover that Israelis of all political streams will begin to question his credibility.
Continued paralysis will not only undermine national morale, but will also affect American Jews and our friends, who cannot be expected to be more outspoken on behalf of Israel than its prime minister. Abe Foxman of the ADL calls on American Jews to march to Washington in solidarity with Israel while our prime minister continues to recite mantras about the “unshakeable alliance.”
No wonder that until now the Presidents’ Conference has only made tepid statements about the crisis.
If the motive for Netanyahu’s silence is to try to persuade his cabinet to concede, even an iota, to demands to curtail building in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, he is paving the way to disaster. Capitulating to a US administration which has reneged on commitments to Israel undertaken by its predecessors will convince Obama that he has a free hand to impose any settlement he considers appropriate.
We will discover that the United States regards defensible borders as irrelevant, will demand a return of Jerusalem to pre-1967 status, and insist on creating an unencumbered Palestinian state that will almost inevitably become Hamastan. This will have dire long-term repercussions on security and the viability of the Jewish state. It will also reinforce the conviction of jihadists that violence and terror are succeeding, and that the Jewish state is following the path of the crusader kingdoms and will be absorbed by Islam.
The issues are stark. Our two offers to return virtually all the conquered territories were rejected outright. The Palestinians refuse to negotiate, and are escalating their demands. Yet Obama relates to us, not as a democratic ally, but as a contemptible pariah or vassal while appeasing the intransigent Palestinians.
Netanyahu undoubtedly possesses the intellectual capacity to deal with this. Without insulting the American president or becoming confrontational, he must now employ his outstanding communication skills to present our case to the world.
Critics of Netanyahu suggest that his silence confirms that he lacks the backbone and leadership qualities required to respond to a crisis or stand up to pressure. Yet there is no alternative leader, and we rely on our prime minister to provide the resolute and dignified leadership required during such difficult times.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post