Responsibility for the current crisis in Israel’s relations with the United States rests fairly and squarely on the shoulders of Benjamin Netanyahu. The US and Israel have long enjoyed a special relationship based on common ideals and democratic values. By pursuing undemocratic, illegal, and expansionist policies that violate these values, Netanyahu strikes at the very core of this special relationship. His drive to derail the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme is a deliberate distraction from the real issue facing Israel, but it greatly increases the strain on the special relationship.
In the upcoming elections, Netanyahu is running neck-and-neck with Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union which was formed by a merger of the Labour Party with Tzipi Livni’s small centrist party and which Netanyahu likes to call “the anti-Zionist Union”. One of the key issues in this campaign is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than any other issue, this will shape the future of the State of Israel.
On this issue, the Israeli voter is invited to choose between two starkly contrasting visions. For the Zionist Union, ending the occupation is a long-term strategic goal. It advocates negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, leading to a two-state solution to the conflict. It also aims at an overall settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
‘Democratic and Jewish’
Its electoral platform promises to submit an Israeli peace initiative to the Arab League within 100 days of coming to power. The main motive behind this vision is not to dispense justice to the Palestinians but to preserve the democratic and Jewish character of the State of Israel.
Another top priority for the Zionist Union is to cultivate the special relationship with the United States. Herzog is highly critical of Netanyahu for mismanaging the relationship with Israel’s closest ally. He is also warning that the current policy of expanding settlements on the West Bank would turn Israel into an apartheid state and thereby put an end to the Zionist dream. The US aspires to serve as an honest broker in peace talks leading to a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with agreed land swaps. There is thus a broad agreement between the Zionist Union and the Obama administration both on basic values and on the modalities for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Netanyahu and his hawk-infested Likud party, on the other hand, are at odds with the Obama administration on both means and ends. Netanyahu’s undeclared goal is a Jewish state exercising regional military hegemony and ruling over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians. He simply does not believe in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. During his first year as secretary of state, John Kerry made no less than 11 trips to the region in an effort to promote a negotiated settlement. Netanyahu’s diplomatic intransigence turned this valiant effort into an exercise in futility.
During the course of the talks, the Israeli leader did not put forward a single constructive idea. He regards peace talks as an American interest, not an Israeli one. He agreed to the US-sponsored talks in order to ensure their failure without incurring the blame. While they lasted, the peace talks provided Netanyahu’s right-wing government with a useful cover for pursuing its illegal colonial project on the West Bank.
Netanyahu is not just a serial violator of the ideals and values that form the bedrock of the special relationship with the United States. He is also an egregious transgressor of the convention of non-interference in the internal politics of one's ally.
Despite the occasional rhetorical genuflection in the direction of a two-state solution, Netanyahu is doing everything in his power to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. His long-standing and unswerving policy is to oppose Palestinian freedom, self-determination, and statehood. He is the unilateralist par excellence. Land confiscation, economic strangulation, and brutal repression are his chief policy instruments for consolidating Israel’s control over the West Bank.
His vision is of a Greater Israel from the Jordan River to the sea. In the longer term, this vision can lead to one of two things: either Greater Palestine, if political rights are granted to the 4.5 million Palestinian inhabitants of the Occupied Territories or – and this is by far the more likely scenario – an ethnocentric, undemocratic Jewish state, with only limited autonomy for its non-Jewish subjects. There is another word to describe the second outcome – apartheid.
Netanyahu is not just a serial violator of the ideals and values that form the bedrock of the special relationship with the United States. He is also an egregious transgressor of the convention of non-interference in the internal politics of one’s ally. During the last presidential race, Netanyahu stridently intervened in support of the Republican candidate. His war-mongering speech before a joint session of Congress, on March 3, not only incited the Republicans against the president but was also intended to enhance his own standing in the eyes of the Israeli voters.
Netanyahu exploited the platform offered him by the Republican Speaker of the House pf Representatives to demonise Iran and to launch a blistering attack on the Obama-Kerry policy towards Iran but he offered no alternative. He made no mention of Israel’s own arsenal of over 100 nuclear warheads or the idea of a nuclear weapon-free Middle East. There was not a word, not a single constructive idea, on peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s silence on this critical issue exposed the bankruptcy of his entire approach to Israel’s relations with its neighbours.
US President Barack Obama thus has every reason and every justification for throwing his weight behind the Zionist Union in the lead up to the elections of 17 March. All American officials who have dealt with Netanyahu, from the president down, know that there is zero prospect of a peace deal as long as he stays in power. A change of government in Israel is thus a precondition for progress on the Israel-Palestine peace front, and it is Obama’s duty, as Israel’s foremost friend and ally, to help bring it about.
Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of International Relations at Oxford University and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (second edition, 2014).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.