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Netanyahu: Playing Us for Fools

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GALI TIBBON via Getty Images

Over the past few weeks a number of comments related to the now collapsed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks caught my attention. Collectively they establish why the talks failed and make clear what must change if any negotiated settlement is to be successful in the future.

To be blunt, what they reveal is that there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace as long as Benjamin Netanyahu remains Prime Minister of Israel. They also establish that by ignoring this simple fact continued U.S. efforts risk becoming a "fool's errand."

The first comment came from an "anonymous US official" (widely believed to be Martin Indyk) appearing in an Israeli publication. Here is the reason the "US official" gave for the collapse of the peace process:

The negotiations had to start with a decision to freeze settlement construction. We thought that we couldn't achieve that because of the current makeup of the Israeli government, so we gave up. We didn't realize Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government. We didn't realize continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks.

There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort's failure, but people in Israel shouldn't ignore the bitter truth -- the primary sabotage came from the settlements. The Palestinians don't believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We're talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale. That does not reconcile with the agreement.


The second comment came from Netanyahu, speaking to a group of young members of his political party. Here's what he said:

When I entered the Prime Minister's Office for my second term, I was summoned to Washington. "Not one brick," they told me. I was threatened specifically: "Not one brick." The pressure from the international community and the Americans was enormous. I don't think anyone in Israel was under such pressure. And still, after five years on the job, we built a little more than 'one brick.' But the important thing is to do it in a smart way, in a quiet way, without inflammatory statements... A leader knows to stand up to international pressure by maneuvering... What matters is that we continue to head straight toward our goal, even if one time we walk right and another time walk left.

It is difficult to fathom how anyone in the US Administration could claim to have been surprised by Netanyahu's behavior. He is not the "new kid on the block."

Netanyahu was elected in 1996 on a platform dedicated to ending the Oslo peace process. Working with his allies in the American neo-conservative movement who authored his "Making a Clean Break" speech to Congress, the new prime minister set out to play the Republican-led Congress against Clinton in order to bury Oslo. In time, Netanyahu succeeded in so distorting the process that he could claim five years later how he "played the US" and won. Here is Netanyahu, in 2001, describing how he handled America:

I know what America is. America is a thing that can be easily moved, moved in the right direction. They will not bother us. Let's suppose that they will say something... so they say it? Eighty per cent of the Americans support us... We have such support there! And we say... what shall we do with this [support]? Look, the other administration [that of Bill Clinton] was pro-Palestinian in an extreme way. I was not afraid to maneuver there. I did not fear confrontation with Clinton. I was not afraid to clash with the UN.

Why anyone would have thought upon his reelection as Prime Minister in 2009 that Netanyahu would be a "horse of a different color" is difficult to understand. Yes, he claimed to endorse a "two state solution," but with sufficient enough caveats as to render his endorsement meaningless. And yes, he agreed to a short-term "settlement freeze," but as the facts on the ground made clear, his agreement was full of holes.

On the one hand, Netanyahu can be seen as a maneuverer, but in reality, he is an ideologue, relentless in his efforts to maintain control of what he refers to as Judea and Samaria. He will feint to the left or right, as need be, but the key to understanding him is to judge him by his actions, not his words.

During Clinton's second term, Netanyahu so tested his patience that Clinton began to apply subtle but real pressure to send the message to the Israeli people that the US could no longer tolerate his behavior. I recall Clinton's frustration when Netanyahu, using the same argument he has used recently, expressed the fear that his government would fall if he agreed to what the US was asking him to do. Clinton knew that if Netanyahu moved toward peace he would in fact lose some hardline supporters. But what Clinton also knew was that Netanyahu would pick up more support from centrist parties. Then, as now, Netanyahu chose to keep his hardline coalition and to forgo peace. Clinton's pressure continued until Israelis got the message and elected a new prime minister.

President Obama tried to pressure Netanyahu during his first term, but after the Israeli prime minister played the US Congress against him, Obama relented. If the president still hopes to succeed in his second term, he has a choice to make. Leaving it up to the parties to make peace will not work, because Netanyahu doesn't want peace on any terms other than those that would leave both his coalition intact and the Palestinians as a humiliated and still captive people. If the US is serious, then the only course of action is to apply sufficient pressure to force Israelis to choose between Netanyahu and peace. It's politically risky, to be sure, but unless we are ready to play hardball with Netanyahu, he will continue to play us for the fools he thinks we are.