Playing hardball with Netanyahu?

Obama is not likely to blink first regarding illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Jewish settlers have protested against Obama’s position on settlements in the West Bank [AFP]

When Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, arrived in Washington on an official visit and met with the US president, he received “the treatment reserved for the President of Equatorial Guinea”. 

Or so read the editorial pieces in some of Israel’s main newspapers. 

Israel feels humiliated after Netanyahu’s Washington adventure. They believe the Americans lured him in with a false sense of security, promises of solid (in fact “rock-solid”) bonds, messages communicated by top US officials that the crisis over illegal settlements in the West Bank is over  – only for the Barack Obama himself to deliver the blow as soon as he got face time with the Israeli prime minister.

And Netanyahu is bruised. Put aside the political jargon, there is no “golden way” forward.

The US wants a stop to settlement building in East Jerusalem. But the Israelis will not comply – there are no compromises that can be made, only gestures to deflect attention away from the collision course the US and Israel are now on.

The blink game

So, who will blink first? Judging by the way the meeting went on Tuesday night (or at least from what we know of it; the 90-minute chat was held behind closed doors and away from the media) it likely will not be Obama.

Emboldened by an historic win on healthcare reform at home, the US president appears to be playing hardball. And Israel is exactly in the position it hates to be in – the ball is in its court and Obama is not letting Netanyahu hit it back to the Palestinians, at least not just yet.

Israel will probably do what it has always done when this kind of pressure is on – claim their fragile coalition government will collapse if they make the compromises the US is asking for. It will not work this time.

Obama is more than happy to see Netanyahu’s right-wing partners (the Shas and Yisrael Beitenu parties) exit and for Kadima (led by Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister) to enter the political frame. 

Livni is easier to deal with, considered more dovish (which says a lot about how far right the country has shifted in recent years) and generally considered by the US administration as a better partner for the Palestinians to make peace with.

She has already indicated if Netanyahu is serious about sharing out cabinet portfolios she may consider joining his coalition if Shas and the others abandon him. It has also reported the Americans have sought guarantees from her that she is serious about that offer.

No wiggle room?

It is difficult to see how Netanyahu will wriggle out of this one. No Israeli administration since Jerusalem was occupied in 1967 has agreed to publicly freeze illegal construction in East Jerusalem. 

Compromises can be made on refugees, land swaps based on the 1967 border … but Jerusalem? Jerusalem is not up for discussion; Israel has prepared its public that one day they may have to make sacrifices on some fronts, but they never gave any hint that Jerusalem would be one of them.

Meanwhile, Palestinians do not quite share my optimism on Obama’s determination. 

“We have seen it before, an American president on a high after a domestic win … the reality of mid-term elections and what it really means to come up against Israel will soon hit him and he will retreat – he’s not the first or the last president to have the right idea and then find his hands are tied,” my Palestinian landlord told me. 

Others still say they are afraid of this crossroad in Israeli-US relations.

It is often said that Jerusalem is the key to peace, but it can also be the gateway to war.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera


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