Perspectives Papers on Current Affairs
March 25, 2010
Netanyahu Can Say "No"
EXECUTIVE SUMMERY: The Obama administration’s attempt to force Israel to accept the division of Jerusalem as a prerequisite for peace talks is astonishing. Despite the obvious reluctance to confront an American president, Prime Minister Netanyahu can effectively resist such American pressure on Jerusalem. In fact, Jerusalem is the issue on which Netanyahu can best make a stand against Obama.
President Barack Obama capitalized on a minor Israeli glitch – the announcement of Israel's plans to build in Ramat Shlomo – to fabricate a crisis in US-Israeli relations. Obama seeks to renegotiate the agreement reached for starting proximity talks with the Palestinians and to extract additional concessions from Israel. Most striking and central is the administration's effort to force Israel into accepting the division of Jerusalem even before the talks start.
The White House expects that the Israeli prime minister will bend under pressure to its wishes. While in the past Netanyahu has proven susceptible to such pressure, the administration may be overplaying its hand on the issue of Jerusalem. Despite the obvious reluctance to confront an American president, Prime Minister Netanyahu can effectively resist American pressure. In fact, this is the issue on which Netanyahu can best take a stand against Obama.
The division of the city is opposed by the current democratically-elected Israeli government and (according to polls that I have directed) by over 70 percent of the Jews in Israel. Few issues in Israel command such a large and clear majority.
The timing of the crisis also serves Israel well. A few days before Passover when Jews repeat a 2,000-year-old text pledging, “Next year in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu can say no to American demands for concessions in Jerusalem. Rejection of the division of Jerusalem expresses the deepest wishes of an overwhelming number of Jews living both in Israel and the Diaspora.
In contrast to parts of Judea and Samaria, the Israeli need to maintain the status quo in Jerusalem is easiest to explain. The Palestinian claim to Jerusalem is weak. There was never a Palestinian state and the Jews have been the majority in Jerusalem for the past 150 years. Jerusalem has never been a capital of any political entity, except that of a Jewish State. Moreover, the Arab residents of Jerusalem, if given a choice, would in all probability prefer to live under Israeli sovereignty than become part of a failed Palestinian state. Finally, dividing a city makes very little urban or political sense.
Netanyahu has the rhetorical power to galvanize widespread Jewish support for continued and unrestrained Israeli rule in Jerusalem. In 1967, the Jews were fortunate to liberate Jerusalem, their ancient capital, and particularly the Temple Mount, their holiest site. The fortunes of the eternal city strike an emotional chord for every Jew. Even many non-Jews share the same sensitivity.
Israel can reject the Obama demands for additional confidence-building measures by pointing to Obama’s unfairness toward Israel. Netanyahu’s already significant concessions have been belittled by the American administration and rejected as a sign of Israeli seriousness entering into peace talks. Netanyahu’s acquiescence to the two-state paradigm was coolly received in Washington. A partial freeze in Judea and Samaria, an unprecedented concession by an Israeli government, was welcomed only as a “step in the right direction.” Agreeing to proximity talks instead of insisting on direct negotiations – another significant Israeli concession – also is not good enough for the Obama White House.
In contrast, Obama appears to relish humiliating and bullying Netanyahu, the prime minister of a democratic, embattled state. This appears to fit Obama’s overall foreign policy approach of estranging democratic allies while appeasing anti-American dictators.
Israel’s prime minister is acutely aware of the need for American support and friendship and has gone a long way to dispel skepticism about his sincere pursuit of peace. Israelis are frustrated with Obama for favoring the Palestinians, who continue to deny the right of Jewish self-determination and who continue to glorify terrorists that kill Jews. The US, under Obama, ignored the fact that the offers by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert to cede virtually all of the disputed territories were respectively rejected by Arafat in 2000 and ignored by his successor, Abbas, in 2008.
Moreover, in 2000 the Palestinians launched a campaign of terror and recently they have threatened to renew it. Similarly, after the Sharon government unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled all settlements in 2005, the Gaza Strip was converted into a launching pad for intensified missile attacks. Nowadays, it is the Palestinians that are dragging their feet, hoping that the US will force Israel to accept their preconditions.
Flagrant conflict with the US is not something an Israeli leader prefers, but sometimes the asymmetry between a great power and its small ally is not compelling. The Israeli interest in keeping Jerusalem united is more intense than the Obama desire for a foreign policy success. The balance of determination tilts in Israel's favor. Moreover, Israel has some leverage by its nuisance value; that is, it can do things that the US does not like. One clear example is an attack on Iran. Another source of Israeli influence is the character of the American political system, which is susceptible to lobbies and popular sentiment.
Fortunately, the level of public support for Israel in the US is at a record high. Over two-thirds of Americans view Israel favorably and prefer the Jewish State to the Palestinians. Congress reflects such widespread attitudes. Since the President is not in sync with a huge majority of Americans on this issue, Israel has a good chance of convincing the American people that their president is unfair to the Jewish State and is wrong in trying to impose his views on democratic Israel. We already see American voices in the media and in Congress expressing criticism of Obama for not treating Netanyahu properly.
At stake is not just a policy issue. Hanna Arendt in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, points out that attitude toward Jews is the litmus test for measuring democratic retrogression. This is true of the attitude toward the Jewish state as well. The unwavering American commitment to democracy incorporates respect for choices made by other democracies. Israel can convince Americans that its democratically-elected government has every right to determine its future.
If Obama continues to insist on freezing construction in Jerusalem, Israel’s prime minister has the option to tell the US and the world that the Jews have returned to where King David established his capital 3,000 years earlier and that they intend to stay there. The text of such a response is easily available: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy" (Psalms 137, 5-7). Once in a while such words have great power.
Prof. Efraim Inbar is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
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