Obama’s Middle East turkeys

Barack Obama continues to feed carrots to the Netanyahu administration, receiving very few concessions in return.

 Binyamin Netanyahu continues to push hardline policies, conceding very little ground on the settlements issue [EPA]

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has repeatedly treated even the most polite requests to live up to its international commitments (i.e., freezing settlements) with contempt. So now the Obama administration has escalated from simple requests to a version of “pretty please, with a cherry on top.”

This approach supposedly comes from the President’s top Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, who is notoriously close to the Israeli government – although one can be certain that AIPAC and the Democratic campaign committees that cultivate the AIPAC donors are weighing in heavily.

Ross seems to think that an “all carrots, no sticks” policy is the best way to deal with Bibi. He is wrong. We have fed Netanyahu so many carrots that he is choking on them and, in return, we have accomplished nothing. Moreover all this Bibi coddling is a total misreading of the prime minister, who is known in Israel as an insecure and easily intimidated bully.

Bullies and push backs

Like most bullies, Bibi backs down only when his adversary pushes back. Netanyahu’s hard-line and racist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman pushes back. And Bibi gives him everything he wants.

President Obama pushed back once – during the battle that followed the settlement expansion announced while the Vice President was in Jerusalem – and Bibi panicked. In fact, he was on the verge of caving when Obama caved first after AIPAC and its congressional cutouts got mad. Bibi duly noted Obama’s surrender, and now, given the triumph of his preferred US political party, he believes, with good cause, that there is nothing he cannot do with complete impunity.

But even he must be surprised by the latest Obama offer. In exchange for a 90-day freeze on settlements, the United States will provide Israel with an additional $3.5 billion in military aid (doubling the annual package). The US pledges to continue to use its veto on Israel’s behalf in the United Nations (vetoing any unilateral establishment of a Palestinian state) and promises never ever to ask Israel to freeze settlements again.

One more thing, the settlement freeze would not apply to any part of Jerusalem, including those 100% Palestinian villages in the West Bank, which Israel conveniently calls Jerusalem even though nobody else ever has.

In other words, the freeze does not apply to the places where most of the settlement expansion is taking place. It does not apply to the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, where ultra-religious settlers are invading Arab neighbourhoods and displacing the locals with all the tenderness of the Belgians in the Congo a hundred years ago.

The gift of giving

And what does the United States get in exchange for all these gifts? Nothing more than a pledge by Israel to commence negotiations toward the borders of a future Palestinian state.

If the negotiations fail, as they surely would, Netanyahu gets to go home with all his booty. Yes, you got it, Israel only needs to freeze some settlement expansion and commence negotiations for 90 days to get everything Obama promised. The negotiations can go nowhere and he still gets rewarded.

In fact, there is no real incentive for Bibi to actually achieve an agreement (unless, there is a secret codicil promising we will support Israeli military strikes on Iran if Netanyahu actually comes to terms with the Palestinians on…something).

And there is one more thing. Netanyahu demands the US offer be put in writing! He doesn’t trust Obama, so Obama will sign some papers, get them notarised, and Fed Ex them over to Bibi overnight express. I wonder if the US has to do the same with the annual $3.5 billion aid cheque.

In any case, very little of this is going to happen. The Knesset just voted this week that any withdrawal from territory must be approved by two-thirds of the Knesset and/or the Israeli people in a referendum. In other words, even if, by some miracle, Netanyahu agrees to share Jerusalem, he cannot deliver the agreement anyway.

Not only would he have to get the deal past the religious bloc and the settlers in his government, the agreement would be fought over in a referendum campaign.

No carrot just a stick

Why would the Palestinians agree to negotiations under these conditions? They can’t. Or maybe they would for $3.5 billion, which they can sure use but would never be offered. Thanks to the Anthony Weiners, Steny Hoyers, Ileana Ros-Lehtinens, Eliot Engels and Brad Shermans of the world, what we invariably offer the Palestinians is not $3.5 billion but, to use a wonderful Yiddish term, bupkes – absolutely nothing or so little as to be an insult.

Israel, one of the few countries in the world unaffected by the worldwide recession – thanks to US assistance – is offered more aid while Palestinians are locked into their road-blocked Bantustan. Despite America’s (and Israel’s) professed trust in Abbas, West Bank Palestinians remain unable to move freely from one town to another, unable even to take advantage of the high-tech jobs for which Israeli business people would love to hire them.

Their only consolation, if it is any consolation, is that they are surely better off than their brethren in Gaza, still under a brutal blockade that Netanyahu, with American acquiescence, is maintaining largely out of spite.

But forget all that for a minute. How is it that the president can offer Netanyahu $3.5 billion more and Congress doesn’t make a peep. After all, both parties are promising to cut spending. American cities and states are on the brink of bankruptcy and Republicans say that they will not spend an extra dime on anything.

The new Tea Party House and Senate members came to Washington determined to cut spending. Is an extra $3.5 billion for Bibi chopped liver?

Why the silence?

For the same reason that aid to Israel is exempted from every package of budget balancing cuts offered by either party. And the same reason that opposition to “earmarks” never extends to the specific earmark for Israel, which is the largest earmark, by far, in the foreign aid appropriations bill.

The lobby will come down like a sledge hammer on any official who breathes a syllable about aid to Israel. I’m not arguing for cutting aid. But it would be interesting if the subject came up other than when Anthony Weiner or Ileana Ros-Lehtinen suggests we give more.

Social Security was once the third rail of American politics – touch it and die. No more. Today, every significant proposal for budget slashing includes Social Security, to one degree or another.

But no one will oppose another $3.5 billion for Netanyahu – which means that even as AIPAC fights for life in the evolving espionage/sex scandal, its 80,000 members are still more powerful than the 40,000,000 members of the AARP. Pretty amazing.

To be honest, I don’t blame Israelis for this. Poll after poll shows that they hate the fact that settlers and religious fanatics can force an entire country to live in the permanent shadow of war so that some settler can walk where Isaac or Jacob supposedly walked. Give Israelis their due, they care more about microchips than Methuselah.

But they are stuck. Due to their ridiculous multi-party system, every government is held hostage by fanatics. (Rabin’s wasn’t, but he was shot by one.) And so they have no choice but to look to the United States to help them secure the peace and security that they (and the Palestinians) need.

But their most powerful ally lets itself be manipulated by the very Israeli leaders who are themselves manipulated by the fanatics.

Where have all the honest brokers gone?

Israelis and Palestinians need an “honest broker,” but that is not the role the Obama administration has decided to play. (Check out any speech on the Middle East by Vice President Joseph Biden, who always says, over and over, that there must be “no daylight, no daylight” between US and Israeli positions. Some honest broker!)

It’s a disgrace. Yes, it pleases the lobby, but the lobby cares infinitely more about its own well-being and power to intimidate than it cares about Israel.

Note to the president: The overwhelming majority of American Jewish donors support the Democratic Party not because Democrats are the more hawkish party on Israel (that would be the GOP) but because they are extremely liberal on domestic issues.

The best way for Obama to solidify his standing with Jewish donors is not by kissing up to Bibi but by ending the Bush tax cuts for billionaires, getting climate change legislation, fixing the economy with more stimulus, and fighting hard to preserve and strengthen health care reform.

The Jewish right (along with the rest of the right) is going with Palin or Romney or whoever. Fortunately, in the Jewish community, the Israel-centric right is tiny, not as well-heeled as the left, and is considered outliers by 80 per cent of the community.

If Obama is Israel’s friend, he’ll tell AIPAC and its cutouts in Congress that he will do what’s right for Israel, which, not so incidentally, is what is right for the United States.

He should toss the AIPAC/Ross plan out the window and take a serious look at what J Street has put together. It is pro-American, pro-Israel, and pro-Palestinian. And unlike Obama’s current plan, it could actually work.

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.

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

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