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Is Obama Aiming to Bring Down Bibi?

Obama's hard line on settlement expansion may have more to do with hurting Netanyahu than with the "peace process."

by
P. David Hornik

Bio

June 2, 2009 - 12:13 am
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After Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama last month, Israeli commentator Aluf Benn noted that “many people in Washington seemed to be more interested in the life expectancy of the current Israeli government than in Netanyahu’s positions.”

Last week in London, dovish Likud minister Dan Meridor reportedly complained to a U.S. delegation that “Washington’s demands of a complete construction freeze would lead to the dissolution of the Netanyahu government.” The Israeli side was said to be “stunned by the uncompromising U.S. stance.”

Israeli commentator Ben Caspit claims the following, from Netanyahu:

“What do they want from me? That my government will fall?”

The Obama administration’s heavy pressure on the settlement issue may well intend precisely that.

This week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be in Washington for talks with — among others — Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and National Security Adviser James Jones. Barak, from the left-of-center Labor Party, is the most dovish major minister in the government. Netanyahu badly wanted Barak and his party within his coalition, partly due to the belief that Labor’s dovish image would shore up Netanyahu’s legitimacy. Barak is said to agree that the U.S. demand for a total settlement freeze, even on “natural growth,” is unreasonable, and is expected to present that position in Washington.

Netanyahu may be finding out the hard way, though, that if Obama and his crew are dead-set against his government, even including perceived moderates in his coalition won’t help. Apart from the diplomatic rumors, there are reasons to believe the U.S. wants to see Bibi go:

1. Netanyahu is a despised man in Washington. In a well-known snippet from his book The Missing Peace, veteran peace-processer and current Persian Gulf envoy Dennis Ross called Netanyahu, in his previous prime-ministerial stint, “nearly insufferable.” In February, after Netanyahu’s Likud and the right wing did well in the Israeli election, the Washington Post reported that “many key players [in the U.S. administration] have long and difficult memories of dealing with … Netanyahu … when he was prime minister during the Clinton administration.” Another peace-processer from that era, Aaron David Miller, said “This is like hanging a ‘closed for the season’ sign on any peacemaking for the next year or so.”

Whatever personal qualities of Netanyahu some of the Americans find objectionable, they don’t like his insistence on traditional Israeli security concerns regarding the West Bank, which they see as precluding the much-desired further empowerment of the Palestinians. They much prefer pliant figures like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who proclaim their readiness to return Israel to the perilous dimensions of what have been called the Auschwitz borders.

2. It is hard to believe the U.S. sees an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as imminent. The administration knows Hamas now controls Gaza, and surely has access to intelligence reports on the weakness, divisions, and falling popularity of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah on the West Bank. As for the current state of intra-Palestinian unity, all one had to do was read, for instance, about this week’s killing by Fatah forces of two Hamas operatives on the West Bank.

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