Ever the clever one, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was up to his old tricks again this week. On Monday, he addressed a half empty UN General Assembly chamber and then came to Washington for what was reported to be a rather chilly meeting with President Obama.
His United Nations' speech was classic Netanyahu -- ominous doomsday warnings coupled with red meat for the faithful, followed by misdirection and, for good measure, a bit of outright deceit intended for media consumption. The latter, most notably, included the Prime Minister's offer to the Arab States to join with Israel in creating "a productive partnership that would build a more secure, peaceful, and prosperous Middle East" -- the idea being something like "we can't make peace with the Palestinians, but if you, Arab States, make peace with us, then we can work together to find a solution to all our problems".
This Israeli fantasy of making peace with the Arabs without first making peace with the Palestinians has been around for decades. It is, in effect, a desire to turn the Arab Peace Initiative on its head with Israel seeking to secure the benefits of regional recognition and normalization, while paying no price, in return. To the uninitiated, or the true-believer, the idea has some appeal -- making it appear that Netanyahu is taking the "high road" in fighting extremism and seeking peace. It is, however, a non-starter since it is something that no Arab leader, and most certainly no segment of Arab public opinion will tolerate. No Arab, at this point, will walk over the bodies of Gaza's dead or by-pass Arab rights in Jerusalem.
There is another more fundamental problem and that is that Netanyahu wasn't serious. His proposal wasn't real. It was, instead, the sort of clever gamesmanship, playing for headlines, for which the Israeli PM is notorious. As is often the case, when he is backed into a corner, Netanyahu will try to maneuver by changing the subject.
It was disturbing that instead of straight-away dismissing this stunt, the New York Times took the bait and headlined their report on the Israeli leader's speech and meeting with President Obama -- "Netanyahu Sees Arab Alliance Aiding Mideast Peace".
The accompanying story began,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday raised the tantalizing prospect that a new Arab alliance could resuscitate Israel's moribund peace talks with the Palestinians, but President Obama responded with a familiar complaint -- that Jewish settlements are the real problem.
In an Oval Office meeting that spoke to both the rapidly shifting landscape in the Middle East and the enduring realities of the peace process, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu discussed how the militant group, Islamic State, was reshaping the region, with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states lining up with Israel against a common foe.
That alignment, Mr. Netanyahu declared in a speech on Monday at the United Nations could be the foundation for the renewal of the Palestinian peace negotiations, which fell apart in April over Jewish settlements and other disputes. It has also left the Israeli leader in an arguably stronger position in the region, if not internationally.
The headline and the framing of the story were misleading and disturbing, portraying Netanyahu as a visionary who sees new possibilities in a changing world, and Obama as stuck in the past with nothing to offer but "a familiar complaint". But wading further into this story makes it clear that the headline and the lead paragraphs were, in fact, nothing more than the misdirection, Netanyahu had hoped for.
Right before the White House meeting, Israel had approved over 2,000 new settlement units in East Jerusalem and a group of hardline settlers, with Israeli military protection occupied a number of homes in Silwan, an Arab community also in East Jerusalem. Far from being just President Obama's "familiar complaint," settlement expansion designed to frustrate peace and embarrass the White House is the modus operandi of the Israeli government -- which, by its very actions, makes it clear that it has no intention of reaching a just peace agreement with the Palestinians.
In the aftermath of the horrific slaughter of innocents in Gaza and in the midst of the rapid expansion of Jewish-only colonies in and around occupied Jerusalem, any talk of an "Arab Alliance" with Israel becomes sheer nonsense. And the notion that Israel is now in an "arguably stronger position in the region, if not internationally" is also nonsense. With Israel facing a UN investigation into its bombing of UN facilities in Gaza, a Security Council vote on a pending Palestinian resolution to set a date for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, and growing international outrage over Israel's behavior in the Gaza war and its ever expanding settlement program -- Israel is, in fact, more isolated then ever before. And because the U.S. continues to be Israel's strongest ally, it is putting the U.S. at risk, as well.
The very next day, the Times ran an editorial entitled "Mr. Netanyahu's Strange Course", in which they rebutted not only the Prime Minister, but the aforementioned article. They referred to the newly announced settlements as "another in a string of calculated embarrassments that... have undermined American efforts" and quoted the Administration rebuke that the new construction "would bring international condemnation [that would] 'distance Israel from even its closest allies.'"
As is often the case, Netanyahu's clever, but disingenuous, ploys can't stand up in the face of reality. The Israeli Prime Minister may have initially fooled the New York Times headline writers and story editors. But in the end, the Times got it right when they closed their editorial noting "Mr. Netanyahu's present course is antagonizing everyone".
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