A year and a half have passed since the last meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the Middle East has changed. Obama and Netanyahu came to power in the same year, and have not stopped sparring since. The climax was a blatant attempt by Netanyahu to interfere in America’s internal politics and to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran. This time around, Netanyahu came out of his meeting with the US President saying that it was “the best meeting to date.”
And there’s little dispute. Obama adhered to America’s commitment to maintain Israel’s military edge, and Netanyahu, for his part, hissed through gritted teeth Israel’s commitment to the two states solution. Netanyahu can be satisfied. For the next two years he will not be pestered on the issue of a Palestinian state. He trumped John Kerry’s obsession for achieving a peace agreement. In his appearances at different forums in the United States, Netanyahu once again explained why it is not feasible to establish a Palestinian state and why Israel needs a permanent military presence in the West Bank.
Obama is indeed very generous and will give Netanyahu America’s most advanced warplanes. But he knows from bitter experience that strategic weapons can do nothing against a 13-year-old boy who comes to stab Jews because his people are fed up with the occupation (which Netanyahu expects to last forever). While Netanyahu does everything to prolong the occupation, Obama is making every effort to sidestep Netanyahu. Obama’s strategic goal is to withdraw the US army from Iraq and Afghanistan because he understands that the American entanglement in these countries weakens the US militarily and economically.
Since becoming president, Obama has invested considerable effort in stabilizing the Middle East by supporting democratic changes there. He believes this process will curb the rise of radical Islam that threatens US national security. To realize this goal, he needs Netanyahu as a partner. He wants to set up a broad moderate camp that includes Arab countries with non-radical Islamic rulers in order to isolate fundamentalist extremism.
As a strategic ally, America wants Israel to contribute its share by ending the occupation and recognizing an independent Palestinian state. Ending the conflict would bring Israel and Arab countries together, reduce the current hostility toward America in the Arab world, and strengthen the moderate camp fighting radical Islam. Netanyahu refuses to cooperate. For him, the Arab world was, and remains, backward. It’s a place where dictators remain in power because the people under their control understand only force. According to this view, democracy is ill-suited to the Arabs and so Israeli occupation will continue until the Palestinians agree to settle for autonomy rather than independence.
The Arab Spring threw a spanner into the works. Mubarak was removed from the world stage, the Syrian civil war led to massive bloodletting, and Syria is now becoming an Iranian/Russian protectorate. Obama sees this as proof that decaying and corrupt regimes cannot survive the flow of history, while Netanyahu sees this as further proof that it’s impossible to reach a final agreement with the Palestinians because of “the murderous chaos taking hold of the Middle East.” Moreover, the argument that the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews was designed to prove that the Arabs are even worse than the Germans.
While Netanyahu thinks in terms of force and more force, Obama is moving in the opposite direction and stands firm in his commitment not to send more American troops to foreign lands. While Israelis veer to the right and are resigned to a cruel, endless and bloody dance with the Palestinians, the Americans, tired of foreign wars, are pivoting to domestic issues. For America, the Middle East, with all its ongoing disasters, is now out of sight and out of mind.
Obama’s policy in the Middle East is certainly in dire straits. Americans have deposited the Iraqis into the hands of a corrupt Shiite regime, making it easier for ISIS or ISIL to occupy Sunni areas in Iraq, including the city of Mosul. Syria is the most blatant proof of Obama’s failure to lead a world facing a humanitarian disaster that has already claimed 300,000 victims and created millions of refugees, some of whom are now knocking on Europe’s back doors. Yemen is immersed in a bloody civil war, and efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have ended in resounding failure.
When Netanyahu meets Obama, Netanyahu sees before him a leader who, during his two terms as president, has lessened America’s influence in the region. The US has fallen out with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen while, at the same time, Vladimir Putin has plundered Ukrainian territories and stationed his army in Syria, defying American interests. It seems that Obama’s weakness is Netanyahu’s strength, and America’s withdrawal exalts Israel’s standing as the only stable democracy in the Middle East.
But it is equally a clash of two world-views, and Netanyahu pays for his policies on this side of the divide. Netanyahu’s disengagement from Obama and the chaotic situation in the Middle East have pushed the US government into the arms of the Iranians. While Netanyahu remains an occupier, Israel’s enemy Iran has upgraded its strategic position in the region following the signing of the nuclear arms deal.
Prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris, the strategic question discussed at the Elysee was whether to serve wine at the gala dinner planned for Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president. Rouhani would not dine with wine on the table and the French would not give up on wine, so the meeting between the presidents was planned for after the meal. (After the attacks Rouhani canceled the trip.) Iran has stepped out of its international isolation and Europe is marking products made in Israeli settlements. Iran was invited to the Vienna conference to discuss the future of Syria, while Netanyahu has had to settle for an American promise that Tehran will not gain a foothold in Syria and the US will safeguard Israel’s vital interests.
This is the true meaning of the “successful meeting” between Netanyahu and Obama: the Palestinian issue was lifted from the US agenda, giving much needed oxygen to Israel’s most extreme right-wing government ever. But, on the other hand, the United States, will now conduct its business in the Middle East in full cooperation with Tehran without being accountable to Israel. This is a net political gain for Netanyahu and a strategic loss for Israel.
Only recently when hostility broke out surrounding the al-Aqsa Mosque, we saw how the “wise” Netanyahu depended on the “obsessive” John Kerry, when urging the latter to intervene with Jordan to help reduce the tension. Hostilities subsided when Netanyahu declared in English that Jews will not pray on the Temple Mount. The al-Aqsa issue abated somewhat, but young Palestinians, women and children, from Jerusalem and the West Bank, will not stop going to the checkpoints and Jewish neighborhoods with knives in their hands.
Obama knows full well that if Israel holds on to the occupied territories, it is destined to live with armed resistance to the occupation. As tradition demands, the US will continue its commitment to Israel’s security even though it is convinced that Israel’s security is in the hands of a blind, extremist and fundamentalist government that is willing to sacrifice the personal safety of its citizens on the altar of Messianic concepts.
Thus we may conclude that, in light of the harsh reality and the bizarre mindset, the Obama-Netanyahu meeting was good and relaxed. Had these two leaders debated their views with passion, if we had seen real anger and frustration in their eyes, then we would realize that they were fighting about something important. Nevertheless, the show before the cameras only reinforces the sense that they both gave up: Obama gave up on the Middle East, Netanyahu gave up on peace. They both came to power together, and both want to finish their terms peacefully. Both leaders failed and we are left with the occupation and hatred on the one hand and, on the other hand, a region that is bleeding and in upheaval.
- Translated by Bob Goldman