Avi Shlaim: Obama must stand up to Netanyahu

By Avi Shlaim, War in Context, March 5, 2012

It is clear what kind of Israeli prime minister President Obama will be receiving at the White House today. Benjamin Netanyahu is a bellicose, right-wing Israeli nationalist, a rejectionist on the subject of Palestinian national rights, and a reactionary who is deeply wedded to the status quo. Nationalism has an in-built tendency to go to extremes and Netanyahu’s brand is no exception. A nation has been defined as ‘a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours’. This definition fits the Likud leader on both counts: he has a selective and self-righteous view of his own country’s history and he is driven by distrust and disdain, if not outright hatred towards the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. This hostility towards Arabs is the central thread that runs through his public utterances, books, and policies as prime minister.

Netanyahu does not believe in peaceful co-existence between equals. He views Israel’s relations with the Arab world as one of permanent conflict, as a never-ending struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. In his 1993 book – A Place among the Nations: Israel and the World – the image he presents of the Arabs is consistently and comprehensively negative. Nor does he admit any possibility of diversity or change. The book does not contain a single positive reference to the Arabs, their history or their culture. Autocracy, violence, and terrorism are said to be the ubiquitous facts in the political life of all the Arab countries. A democratic shift on the Arab side is a precondition to genuine peace with Israel, wrote Netanyahu, in the confident expectation that such a shift is beyond the realm of possibility. The Arab Spring has proved him wrong.

The coalition government headed by Netanyahu is the most aggressively right-wing, diplomatically intransigent, and overtly racist government in Israel’s history. His Foreign minister is Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, Israel is Our Home. Lieberman has set his face against any compromise with the Palestinians and he also favours subjecting Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens to an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu’s Defence Minister is Ehud Barak who destroyed and then defected from the Labour Party to form a small break-away faction called Independence. A former chief-of-staff, Barak suffers from a déformation professionelle: he regards diplomacy as the extension of war by other means. Barak is a bitkhonist, a security-ist who wants 100 per cent security for Israel which means zero security for the Palestinians.

The ideological make-up of this coalition government militates against a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. It is a government of militant nationalists whose aim is to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel. The government is democratically elected but by putting nationalism above morality and international legality, and by relying on military power to subjugate another people, it is in danger of drifting towards fascism. And it is already drifting away from the common values that constitute the foundation of the special relationship between the United States and the State of Israel.

On 14 June 2009, Netanyahu gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University in which, under strong American pressure, he grudgingly endorsed a ‘Demilitarized Palestinian State’. This was hailed as a reversal of his government’s opposition to an independent Palestinian state. But the change was more apparent than real. Judged by his deeds rather than rhetoric, Netanyahu remained the relentless rejectionist that he had been throughout his singularly undistinguished political career. The litmus test of commitment to a two-state solution is a freeze of settlement expansion on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, the capital of the future Palestinian state. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, however, settlement expansion has gone ahead at full tilt, especially in and around Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the most sensitive issue in this tragic, hundred year-old conflict. By putting Jerusalem at the forefront of his expansionist agenda, Netanyahu knowingly and deliberately blocks progress on any of the other ‘permanent status issues’ such as borders and refugees. Netanyahu is not a peace-maker; he is a land-grabber who rides roughshod over Palestinian rights. It is he who has turned the so-called peace process into an exercise in futility. He is like a man who pretends to negotiate the division of a pizza while continuing to gobble it up.

Barrack Obama reiterates at regular intervals that the bond between America and Israel is ‘unbreakable’. If anyone can break this bond, it is Benjamin Netanyahu. Early on in his presidency, Obama identified a settlement freeze as the essential precondition for progress in the American-sponsored peace process. During his Cairo speech, on 4 June 2009, he made it clear that ‘The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements’. Obama had three confrontations with Netanyahu over the demand for a settlement freeze and he backed down each time. Moreover, Obama has all but turned over to Netanyahu the American veto on UN Security Council. Since 1978 America has used the veto forty-two times to defeat resolutions critical of Israel. The most egregious abuse of this power happened in February 2011 when a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion was supported by fourteen members and killed by America. That was a veto of America’s own foreign policy.

How can a jimcrack politician from a small country defy the most powerful man in the world and get away with it? At least part of the answer lies in the enduring power of the Israel lobby. Ever since 1967 the lobby has opposed every international plan for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute that was not to Israel’s liking. But any proposal for a military strike against Israel’s enemies can count on the support of Israel’s friends in Washington, Iraq in 2003 and Iran today being the most obvious examples. In the case of Iran, Netanyahu is the war-monger in chief and he is doing his utmost to drag America into a dangerous confrontation that cannot possibly serve American interests. The region is like a tinder box and one spark could set off a major conflagration.

On 5 March, President Obama is due to receive the Israeli prime minister in the White House. At their first meeting, on 19 May 2009, Obama’s priority was Palestine whereas Netanyahu only wanted to talk about the Iranian threat. Subsequently, Netanyahu succeeded in imposing his agenda on his ally. Today the peace process is in tatters and the war hysteria against Iran is gathering force. The challenge for Obama is to reign in his reckless junior ally and to reorder American priorities in the Middle East. The main threat to regional stability is not Iran but the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. And the main source of hostility towards America throughout the Arab and Muslim lands is Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and America’s complicity in this oppression. If Obama cannot stand up to Bibi Netanyahu in defence of vital American interests, who will he stand up to? His own credibility as the leader of the free world is on the line.

Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (Verso).

An edited version of this op-ed appears in The Independent today. The complete version is published here with the author’s permission.

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  1. delia ruhe says

    I have been waiting for Avi Shlaim to weigh in on this. Thanks for it.

    No one knows the personalities and the dynamics better than Shlaim. His books are amazingly insightful. He should perhaps make this article into a letter to Obama. I am not at all sure that Obama knows who he’s dealing with — despite having been publicly humiliated by him on more than one occasion. Bibi has raised political manipulation to an artform. He’s dangerous.

  2. So, today, we will see if the “O” has what it takes? If he caves in again, then he’s not worthy of being reelected for another 4 years, not that this should cement that moment. “O” represents the 300 + million citizens of the U.S.A., is not beholden to the likes of the Israeli leadership of today. At the end of the day, we shall see.

  3. Tom Hall says

    Avi Shlaim is indeed an important, principled and articulate advocate for a sane course of action. Unfortunately, when Israeli voices are raised in criticism of Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak, there is often a tendency to portray such figures as somehow deviant or anomalous, pursuing policies which represent a departure from the defining precepts of Zionism. The truth is that as in Washington, so it has been in Tel Aviv: from one administration to the next, the watchword is continuity. Central goals remain firmly in place, and the violent dispossession of the Palestinians by every means to hand continues decade on decade. If they were to return to our time, the founders of the state would recognize Bibi and his cabinet as heirs to their dream of a racially, ethnically, religiously pure nation. For their part, the current government would be entitled to remind their loyal critics that they are fulfilling the basic mandate of the Zionist movement, to conquer, purge and colonize the land of Palestine/Israel.

  4. DE Teodoru says

    CORRECTED VERSION. Please remove prior version

    Well, the Sabra “NEW JEW” in Netanyahu aroused at the start of this term as PM. He was exploring an economic marriage with the Palestinians that could lead to true love with mass majority of non-HAMAS Palestinians. Prof Shlaim should then have said: BIBBI, STOP LISTENING TO THOSE SOVIET SCUMBAGS in your Cabinet! He didn’t; instead, like all those moral Peace Jews he damned Netanyahu who is now nothing but a fallen man with no chance to pick himself up as a real mensch without risking his PM job. Too bad. My faith in Bibbi caused me to be criticized as a “meshugena” by all those brilliant clear thinking humanist Israeli Wise Elders I know. “Shmuck, you can’t make cake out of sh–t!” they insisted. So, where are Shlaim and the Wise Old Jews I so admire now? THEY’RE HELPLESSLY YELLING AT OBAMA: SHMUCK, YOU *MUST* STAND UP TO NETANYAHU!!

    ng to prove its toughness through its Project Daniel nuclear terrorism, thus dooming itself because Israeli morale collapses unless the military odds are 1000% in its favor. I repeat, Israel could lead the Arab Spring ONLY IF IT LEARNS MODESTY AND COURAGE and stops believing that it is In truth, by proving to be, not only unprincipled by bowing to shyster Lieberman, but also a coward by NOT inserting Israel as a positive guiding force into the Arab Spring, Bibbi’s insolent state, bellowing bravura instead, finds itself SURROUNDED BY THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD coming to power everywhere!

    Lest Israel realize that there are family ties between its SABRAS and the MB’s young modernist revolutionaries so THEY CAN WORK TOGETHER to bring these Sunnis into a joint modernization of Mideast Project, Israel will find itself once again tryithe omnipotent shyster in a world of “dumb goyim.” Israel is prone to panic so the only concequence tihs panic will offer is to bring a nuclear Holocaust upon the Middle East: it’s project Daniel.

    Bibbi, THAT’S NOT WHAT YOUR BROTHER AND SO MANY BRAVE ISRAELIS DIED FOR! So get hold of your cohones and reach out to the Arab youth that is so much like the Israeli youth. Let the next generation have the Middle East it wants by recognizing that the old Arab/Zionist fakers had their turn and blew it.

    Obama will give up NOTHING on Iran because the Pentagon can cost him a hell of a lot more votes protesting attack of Iran than can Netanyahu’s protest of no attack of Iran with his unctuous Holocaust Song. PEACE IS AT HAND!!!!!

  5. dickerson3870 says

    RE: “Netanyahu does not believe in peaceful co-existence between equals. He views Israel’s relations with the Arab world as one of permanent conflict, as a never-ending struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.” ~ Shlaim

    FROM WIKIPEDIA [Iron Wall (essay)]:

    (excerpt)…Jabotinsky argued that the Palestinians would not agree to a Jewish majority in Palestine, and that “Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”[1] The only solution to achieve peace and a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, he [Ze’ev Jabotinsky] argued, would be for Jews to unilaterally decide its borders and defend them with the strongest security possible…

    SOURCE – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Wall_(essay)
    ALSO: The Iron Wall, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, 1923 – http://www.mideastweb.org/ironwall.htm