Did Netanyahu Attempt to Score Partisan Points Against Obama in Washington?

Shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in at the Knesset as the Prime Minister of Israel, the veteran politician outlined his vision for how a two-state solution could be achieved. In a June 2009 policy address at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu said: "In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor's security and existence."

Nearly two years later, the Netanyahu government is facing increasing international isolation over its perceived unwillingness to advance the stalled Middle East peace process. In particular, since assuming his premiership, Netanyahu has openly clashed with nearly every single Israeli ally from U.S. President Barack Obama to the leaders of Germany, France, Britain -- and King Abdullah of Jordan is refusing to meet with him. Moreover, as recently as two weeks ago, Russia's intelligence services (FSB) expelled a high-ranking Israeli embassy official in Moscow for alleged military espionage. The expulsion of Col. Menashe Vadim Liedman is yet another foreign policy setback, as Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is known for having spent significant diplomatic and personal capital on upgrading relations with Russia and former USSR countries.

To make matters even worse, the fall of Hosni Mubarak adds another level of uncertainty as it is far from clear what kind of relations a new Egyptian regime will have with the Jewish state, and with Hamas and Iran in particular. Adding to Israel's regional isolation, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu continues to make diplomatic strides towards neighboring countries while championing what he calls a foreign policy based on "strategic depth." In Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's eyes, mending ties with Syria, Iran and even Armenia is priority; somehow Israel does not fit into that vision. While relations with Ankara have steadily deteriorated since Israel's Gaza war in 2008-2009, a full-blown crisis triggered by last year's "Freedom Flotilla" has yet to be resolved.

At the backdrop of Israel's regional isolation, and Netanyahu's strained relations with world leaders, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has announced his intentions to unilaterally declare statehood at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) this coming September. While the Palestinian initiative has repeatedly been rejected by President Obama, Israeli diplomats are playing "catch-up" to convince European states to vote "nay" at the UNGA. It is estimated that the large majority of non-Western nations at the UN, among the remaining 76 states will also vote in favor of the Palestinian bid, which leaves Israel with a little over 40 states whose vote is still open.

By actively exploiting Israel's eroding international standing, Abbas' UN bid could arguably trigger the most significant crisis the Jewish state has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Added regional uncertainties prompted by the "Arab spring," could also spill over and into the Palestinian territories. In a worst case scenario, but not an unrealistic one, a third intifada could erupt this September unless a political solution to Abbas' UN bid is reached.

Meanwhile, European allies from British Prime Minister David Cameron to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have indicated that unless "significant progress" on the peace process are made, an "aye" vote could be cast at the UN. According to Israeli media reports, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem is focusing on getting the support from the following five EU members: Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain.

Given the looming crisis Israel is facing in September, it is rather surprising that Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to publicly confront President Obama's proposal that the baseline for a future Palestinian state would be the 1967 borders. While the president later sought to clarify his remarks in an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Netanyahu declared in his own speech to the influential lobby group how he envisioned an agreement: "But I want to assure you of one thing. It must leave Israel with security. And therefore, Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines."

Despite Netanyahu's uncompromising rhetoric in Washington on the issue related to the 1967 borders, a joint statement issued with U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on November 11, 2010 read:

The Secretary reiterated that "the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.

The Prime Minister's remarks, intentionally or not, caused many of Obama's most ardent critics to question whether the U.S. president is "fully committed to Israel's security." Either way, Netanyahu's AIPAC address followed nearly two days after Obama reassured the same audience: "The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable and the U.S. commitment to Israel's security iron-clad. The relationship between our countries is so strong because it is rooted in both common values and common interests."

Equally surprising, given Netanyahu's distinct honor and privilege to address the U.S. Congress, the Prime Minister arguably fell short of building international momentum against the Palestinian UN imitative by falling to reach Abbas an olive branch. Regardless, while the Premier listed impressive economic data resulting from unprecedented Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, Netanyahu possibly left the door open for finding a solution to one of the most contentious issues: Jerusalem.

While both Netanyahu and Abbas are known for their strong and absolutist rhetoric in order to strengthen their domestic negotiating positions, the Israeli premier said: "Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel. I know that this is a difficult issue for Palestinians. But I believe with creativity and goodwill a solution can be found."

Lastly, since assuming the presidency, Obama has arguably become the "best friend" Israel could have by successfully coupling a new series of punitive sanctions against Iran with deepening bilateral defense cooperation. While the Forward's own "fact-sheet" revealed near identical positions between the U.S. president and the Israeli premier on issues ranging from Iran to the Middle East peace process; it would be wise for Netanyahu to remember that Obama is his best, and perhaps only friend. Conservative republicans may feel more sympathetic towards Netanyahu's leadership style, but it would be foolish to lose liberal Americans by playing up partisan differences by publicly undercutting Obama's call for direct negotiations with Abbas.