Thursday, November 12, 2015

Netanyahu Treads Lightly - Joseph Klein

by Joseph Klein

The Israeli Prime Minister attempts to repair relations with Obama -- and faces hatred from the Left.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House on November 9th for two-and-a-half hours, their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year.

While their body language did not exactly exude warmth between the two leaders, they were said by officials on both sides to have conducted a “businesslike” and “cordial” meeting. If so, any such cordiality on Obama’s part would be a first, considering the long pattern of public disparagement of Netanyahu by members of Obama’s administration and by the president himself.

Whatever personal animus Obama still has for Netanyahu, the president kept it inside and put on his game face for the summit meeting. In his introductory public remarks before the summit meeting, President Obama condemned the Palestinian campaign of violence against “innocent Israeli citizens” and acknowledged that Israel “has not just the right, but the obligation to protect itself.”  Missing from his statement were his usual expression of moral equivalence and calls for Israel not to retaliate with disproportionate force. Obama was also careful to stay away from the settlements issue that had sparked tension between the two leaders early in Obama’s first term. Obama chose to restrain himself this time from stressing his differences with Israeli policies on sensitive issues. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu reciprocated, thanking President Obama “for sustaining and strengthening the tremendous friendship and alliance between Israel and the United States of America.” The prime minister’s statement that “I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples” was no doubt meant to placate his host, even though Obama has all but given up trying to achieve that vision during his presidency. 

President Obama did allude in his pre-meeting remarks to the much publicized differences with Prime Minister Netanyahu over what the president described as the “narrow” issue of the Iran nuclear agreement. However, trying to put to rest the issue that has caused the most contention between the leaders during their common time in office, Obama emphasized their shared goals in countering Iranian aggression, keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and curbing violent extremism in the region.

For his part, Prime Minister Netanyahu steered clear of the Iranian nuclear deal altogether in his public remarks before the summit meeting. Instead, the prime minister focused on the positive. He thanked Obama “for your commitment to further bolstering Israel’s security” and for engaging in “how to bolster Israel’s security, how to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge so that Israel can, as you’ve often said, defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

After admitting the obvious that “the security environment in the Middle East has deteriorated in many areas,” Obama declared “the security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities.” The summit helped kick off discussions to advance negotiation of the terms of a new 10 year memorandum of understanding on U.S. military assistance to replace the current one that expires in 2017. While apparently no commitments were made regarding specific dollar amounts of enhanced aid, Obama reportedly told Netanyahu during the meeting that he was sending high level officials to Israel next month to work on the terms of such a security agreement.

It is in both leaders’ interest at this time to demonstrate publicly that they have much more in common than any differences between them. President Obama is trying to convince the mainstream Jewish-American electorate that he – and by extension the Democratic Party – can be entrusted to look after Israel’s vital interests. He also may be hedging his bets, as he sees Iran remaining as belligerent as ever and cementing its alliance with Russia in Syria, while Sunni Arab states back away from his anti-ISIS coalition. The Syrian conflict, including the war on ISIS and Russia’s military involvement, were reportedly among the major topics of discussion. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want to further alienate President Obama to the point that Obama decides not to protect Israel diplomatically at the United Nations, with a veto if necessary, the next time the Palestinians try to push the Security Council to pass a pro-Palestinian resolution. The prime minister is also adopting a conciliatory approach in order to blunt criticism at home that he has unnecessarily damaged relations with Israel’s most important ally as a result of the bellicose language he has used in the past. And he is trying to prevent a serious rupture in the Jewish-American community where disagreements with Netanyahu’s past statements and policies have surfaced. Thus, on the issue of Iran, for example, Netanyahu made it clear in his speech to the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America the day after the summit meeting that he has basically accepted the nuclear deal with Iran as a fait accompli. “I believe that America and Israel can and should work together now to ensure that Iran complies with the deal, to curb Iran’s regional aggression and to fight Iranian terrorism around the world,” he said.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is also using his Washington visit to try and restore the level of bipartisan support for Israel in Congress that had existed prior to the brouhaha over Iran. Continuation of significant U.S. support for Israel’s defense is at stake. “Yesterday I had a wonderful discussion with President Obama about how to secure that assistance for the coming decade,” Netanyahu told the Jewish Federations of North America audience. He hopes Congress is listening.

To cover both ends of the American political spectrum, the prime minister met with the conservative American Enterprise Institute to receive the 2015 Irving Kristol Award and has reached out to engage in a dialogue with the Center for American Progress (CAP).  This organization can be especially important in repairing Israel’s bridges to Democrats, both in Congress and among opinion makers. CAP’s leaders extended the invitation, although there was internal dissension within the ranks. Several CAP employees strongly criticized the decision to extend the invitation, reading a joint statement of opposition at an internal meeting last week.  

CAP’s announcement described the event as “a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a range of issues, including Iran, Israeli-Palestinian relations, regional concerns, and ways to strengthen the partnership between Israel and the United States.”

The Israeli prime minister did not simply give a speech at CAP’s headquarters and then duck out. He responded to questions from the moderator and the audience with a candid discussion of such matters as prospects for peace with the Palestinians and the handling of settlements and settler violence. He said that he remained willing to sit down with Palestinian Authority President Abbas anytime without conditions. He half-jokingly suggested to the moderator that she invite Abbas to the CAP forum as well so that such negotiations could start to take place. Netanyahu said that the settlements issue could be solved rather easily and, to put the issue in perspective, pointed out that Palestinian attacks on Jews in the region went as far back as the 1920’s before there was an Israeli state. He noted that a viable two-state solution required mutual recognition including the Palestinians’ acceptance of a Jewish state that would not be flooded by millions of Palestinian “refugees” seeking to “return” to areas within pre-1967 Israel. It also required guarantees that Israel would maintain control of security in ceded territory to avoid a replication of the Gaza debacle.

It should be noted that CAP’s President Neera Tanden served as Hillary Clinton’s policy advisor in her 2008 presidential campaign. The Center for American Progress was once described as “the official Hillary Clinton think tank.” Tanden may well be trying to use CAP’s progressive credentials to give Hillary political cover with hard-left Democrats disenchanted with Netanyahu. This would help shore up Hillary’s leftist base as she also reaches out to Jewish voters more favorably disposed towards Netanyahu with her promise that she would invite Netanyahu to the White House “in my first month in office.” 

However, whatever their motive, CAP at least stood firm in defending the value of free exchange of ideas and points of view against militant calls for censorship by members of the intolerant Left. CAP’s leaders had to fight off anti-Israel radicals who tried to get CAP to cancel Prime Minister Netanyahu’s event with CAP. As CAP President Tanden explained, “There is a progressive value to have an open discourse on important topics of the day. It was not an easy decision but at end of day we are a think tank. He’s the leader of a country with which the US has a very strong relationship. There are issues we care about in Israel and the region. So we agreed to hold a forum."

A letter to the Center for American Progress, circulated by Jewish Voice for Peace and the Arab American Institute and signed by a bevy of far-left organizations and individuals describing themselves as “progressives,” accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of “attempting to repackage his increasingly far-right agenda as bi-partisan consensus.” The signers said they were “dismayed that CAP will sponsor an address by Netanyahu on November 10th” and that “CAP should not be providing him with this opportunity.”

The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation organized a picket line outside of CAP’s office for the purpose of “enoucaging (sic) CAP employees to boycott Netanyahu's event.”

Their efforts failed to stop the event. Prime Minister Netanyahu calmly explained Israel’s position on a number of delicate issues. While not greeted with the kind of enthusiastic applause he is used to receiving in more friendly settings, he at least was accorded a respectful hearing. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s whirlwind visit to Washington has succeeded in helping to restore bipartisan consensus in support of Israel’s legitimate security needs. The hard Left’s efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state of Israel and paint its leaders as racists took a beating in this round at least.   

Joseph Klein is a Harvard-trained lawyer and the author of Global Deception: The UN’s Stealth Assault on America’s Freedom and Lethal Engagement: Barack Hussein Obama, the United Nations & Radical Islam.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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