Bibi’s Coming to Town!

Israeli prime minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahou is coming to the United States this week. He does not come with any olive branch in his hand to help smooth over the rift of a week and a half ago regarding the settlement issue that exploded like a trick cigar during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel; rather, he comes puffed up following his announcement in his own country that he is not about ready to halt new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. So much for the peace process!

Given the toxic tenor of politics in Washington these days, his arrival puts the Obama administration in an absolutely politically untenable position. American Likud (those parts of the American Jewish community that supports the Netanyahou approach) expect President Obama to greet Bibi with open arms, and that not to do so would be a terrible affront to one of our closest allies. If we appear to abandon the Israeli leadership on this matter of such importance to Israel, they maintain, how can any of our allies trust us in the future? If you want to know, just look at French reaction after the United States co-sponsored a UN Security Council Resolution with the Soviet Union in 1956 demanding that Britain, France, and Israel withdraw from Suez, which they had invaded illegally to protect Franch and British interests in the Suez Canal.

The other side, of course, will argue equally fervently that Obama should not reward Israel’s bad behavior–opposing very publicly stated U.S. policy–by embracing Netanyahou as if nothing had happened. To do this, they will maintain, is to make a mockery of any American policy position on anything–wishy washy old Barack Obama. Moreover, such an embrace would reward the snubbing of the country’s second highest official, not exactly a patriotic move.

The President, of course, cannot win in these circumstances; he is truly damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The point, however, is that the position he is in is not his fault. One can argue, of course, that had he not personally guided the United States into the controversial position of promoting a two-state solution of which the settlement situation is a primary part, the seeds of disagreement would not have been sown, and the East Jerusalem expanding settlement/annexation issue would have been a non-issue. He could, in other words, followed the George W. Bush policy of simply rolling over on his back and waiting for Netanyahou to scratch his belly. Under Bush, that policy (of course Ariel Sharon did the belly-scratching for much of the period) coincided with no forward progress toward peace and facilitated the settlement process that has all but killed (if it hasn’t already) the possibility of a two-state solution. Letting Israel have its way is probably better American domestic politics than the alternative, but it is arguably not very good or responsible foreign policy.

Although not every reader is likely to agree with me here, the real responsibility for this whole brouhaha resides directly on the desk of Bibi Netanyahou and his supporters. Regardless of whether the logistical embarassment of announcing actions directly contrary to US preferences while Biden was in country was purposive or not (my personal take is that the Israeli regime is so arrogant as not to have cared one way or the other), the March 8 incident was simply one manifestation of underlying Netanyahou policy. Bibi is nothing if not open about this; he thinks the West Bank is Israel’s, and he is not about to back away from that position. He and the Obama administration are at loggerheads on this issue, and there is no point in phony expressions of comraderie and common cause until someone is willing to move on this issue. The Obama administration is not ready to back down, and neither is Netanyahou. So what is there to talk about? The outcome of the health care vote?

Bibi is coming to the United States mainly to raise money from the disapora to fund, among other things, more settlements. He has a perfect right to do so, and contributors have an equal right to sign checks. President Obama, however, is under absolutely no moral or political obligation to welcome or embrace a visit for that purpose. What do the critics think the President of the United States should do: write a check from part of his Nobel Prize award to fund a few more condos in East Jerusalem? I don’t think so.

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