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Why Netanyahu Canceled His DC Visit, and Why the GOP Is Applauding

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Yesterday evening (late night Israel time), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would not, after all, be attending next week's Nuclear Security Summit to be hosted by President Obama in Washington, DC.

Speaking to Republican party loyalists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Liz Cheney in a manner that was not only very predictable but also as one imagines Netanyahu would have scripted her -- attacked the president of her own country for what she called his "shabby" and "disgraceful" treatment of Israel. The party faithful applauded.

The reasons cited by Israeli officials for their PM's Washington no-show were last-minute concerns that Israel's own nuclear program -- or in official lingua franca, non-NPT signatory status -- would be raised by certain summit attendees -- notably, Egypt and Turkey. It is an explanation that fails to meet even the lowest bar of plausibility -- unless Benjamin Netanyahu has been moonlighting as Sleeping Beauty for the last decade or more. It is a very long-standing tradition that at every possible international forum Egypt raises its concerns at Israel's nuclear program and non-NPT status, and it did so along with other Arab states and in Israel's presence when multilateral Arms Control and Regional Security talks took place throughout the 90's after the Madrid Conference.

Turkey too has been articulating its public support for a WMD-free Middle East for some time. So the concerns noted by the New York Times regarding Egypt and Turkey were hardly a new development necessitating any reassessment of a prime ministerial travel schedule. To be clear, Israel is not boycotting the summit and will in fact be represented by the most respected, talented, and all-together decent member of the government, Minister Dan Meridor. But that doesn't change the headline -- the Netanyahu no-show.

The concerns regarding Israel's nuclear posture, whether Netanyahu attends or not, will be raised, and canceling his participation focuses as much of a spotlight on this as his presence in the room would have done. Netanyahu's decision clearly has much more to do with the current status of U.S. efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace and the posture that Israel's PM is choosing to adopt in response to that, as Glenn Kessler hints in today's Washington Post.

The Netanyahu team apparently decided that next week's visit was a lose-lose proposition. Canceling would raise eyebrows and questions, but showing up in DC would create more concrete challenges. Who would Netanyahu meet with and what messages would he be conveying regarding East Jerusalem settlement expansion and other issues?

Israel's current prime minister is acting like the apprehensive child who hopes that by closing his eyes and waiting the threatening thing will go away. The thing that Netanyahu hopes will go away is the need to make real decisions regarding peace, Israel's future, occupation, and the settlements, with President Obama simply playing the role of the latest guise in which that question comes.

The most revealing indication that Netanyahu was seeking to lessen the impact of this decision and avoid the issue was the timing of his announcement. It came at around 5pm EST on Thursday. That's midnight in Israel. The weekend papers had just been put to bed (the item just makes it into some, but was too late for splashy headlines or commentary). Friday and Saturday are dead news days in Israel (there are not even newspapers on the latter), and the news-cycle was anyway being dominated by the court's lifting of a gag order against a journalist and ex-soldier accused of leaking state secrets and the freedom of press repercussions of that story.

Substantively, Netanyahu should have every reason to positively RSVP to President Obama's invitation to attend next week's summit alongside over 40 heads of state. The summit is dedicated to the issue of nuclear terrorism, an area in which the U.S. and Israel share many challenges. The transfer of nuclear technology to non-state actors for terrorist purposes is a central and constant refrain of Israeli officials when urging action against Iran.

While it is true that the U.S. president's active pursuit of a non-proliferation agenda may lead some eyes to be cast in the direction of Jerusalem (or more precisely Dimona, the site of Israel's presumed nuclear program) Obama himself and his administration have been solid in reiterating the commitment to Israel's unique and protected nuclear status. This assurance was reissued to Israel by senior U.S. officials in the lead-up to next week's summit. This is hardly something to be sneezed at when nonproliferation is a centerpiece of your global agenda and when your position vis-a-vis Israel can so easily be portrayed as hypocritical.

Rather than welcome this latest American expression of fealty to the special relationship and accept the invitation, Netanyahu decided to poke the president in the eye yet again. One of the only articles that did manage to make Israel's Friday press deadline was a short piece in the Ma'ariv newspaper by Eli Bardenstein, "Unlike the past, this time Israeli officials fear that the Egyptian position will gain the ear of the American administration... and will harm Israel's policy of ambiguity."

Ever since Netanyahu's government took office, there has been a never-ending stream of stories from unnamed sources taking shots at the Obama administration, trying to undermine its standing with the Israeli public, and sending the signal to the Likud echo chamber stateside to swing into action. This would appear to be the latest example and who better today than Liz Cheney to be on the receiving end of the Netanyahu long ball.

In her speech last night, Liz Cheney repeated what has become something of a boilerplate GOP talking point in the last year -- that Obama is undermining America's most important relationship in the world. Although we're so used to hearing it, it's worth pausing for just a moment to ask why the GOP is so enthusiastically adopting this line.

From the Cheney clan and their school of militarist nationalism and projection of American hard power, protecting the profits of the defense, energy, and other sectors that benefit while piling up national debt and only recalling fiscal responsibility when it comes to paying for social domestic needs such as health care -- from them, it should come as no surprise. Likewise, from the Likudist wing of the neoconservative movement. As Elliott Abrams stunningly wrote in his 1997 book, How Jews can survive in Christian America, "Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nations in which they live." I actually hesitate to quote that, concerned as I am at the use it can be put to by people of ill-will. But Elliott Abrams is responsible for his writings and indeed for his life's opus of destruction and wrongdoing.

There are of course also the pro-settlement Evangelical Zionists with their not-so-happy dispensationalist vision for the future of the Holy Land and of the Jews (probably the only time I would ever share a fate with Elliott Abrams -- though he makes common cause with and encourages them while I do not). Yes, that's a not insignificant core of today's GOP, and the rest might think they can score cheap partisan political points against Obama and maybe even win over a few Jewish voters or donors by going along for the ride. It may be naive, but is that really a good enough reason to undermine American national security interests (and for anyone to undermine Israel's future as a democracy and future as a Jewish homeland)?

Wiser GOP heads-notably foreign policy realists-are no doubt exasperated and hoping that the words of the normally Republican-revered General Petraeus may have some impact. He told the Senate Armed Services committee last month [pdf] and indeed last year how debilitating this conflict is for the challenges the U.S. military faces throughout the region and suggested an urgency in its resolution.

Why Netanyahu should be playing this game is perhaps more obvious. The links between the Likud and settler community and the Republican right have been strengthening over the past two decades and now have real depth and sense of common purpose to them. Netanyahu appears to be playing the same mischievous game in American domestic politics today as he did in the 90's (although the upshot then was a fall-out with President Clinton which contributed greatly to Netanyahu's own coalition collapse and reelection failure in 1999). They also share some of the same sources of largess, notably Sheldon Adelson.

But this does not explain what is behind it for Netanyahu, what he hopes to achieve, his goals. This does: Netanyahu may be for a Greater Israel in which case he has to play for time; or he may not be for a Greater Israel but is unwilling to confront the settlers and their sympathizers and his own personal demons which that would entail, leading to the same conclusion. Play for time.

Playing for time though, is not pretty. In practice it entails entrenching an occupation/settlement reality which is unsustainable, just gets uglier, and has consequences. Those consequences include an increasingly undemocratic Israel, one that will have neither peace nor security, and an Israel that cannot work effectively with the region or even with its closest allies in facing the challenge of Iran. It also erodes Israel's standing even in the U.S. and allows it to increasingly become a partisan political plaything.

What all this means for President Obama and his administration is that their best option is to pursue the ideas already under consideration, and leaked this week by David Ignatius in The Washington Post and Helene Cooper in NYT, to advance it's own plan or terms of reference for a two-state deal and present these real and clear choices to the Israelis and Palestinians. If Netanyahu is able to do the right thing, it will only be under these circumstances, and if not Israelis have the chance to come to their own conclusion in their democracy.

Let's see Liz Cheney oppose President Obama, Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, and General Petraeus as they stand four-square behind a plan that delivers on the American national security interest.

Netanyahu doesn't need to visit DC next week, but once the preparations are made and the plan is ready, President Obama needs to go to Israel and to the pro-Israel community at home and make his case -- it would be an act of both courage and true friendship.