Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told France and the 20-plus countries attending the peace conference in Paris this week to butt out of the peace process and mind their own business. He also made it clear to the world powers, including Israel’s Western allies, that they can say what they may, but Israel will do what it wants.
You would expect such behaviour to alienate Israel’s backers and elicit some public rebuke from its detractors. Dream on. They’ve proven too craven to express in public what they say in private. In 2011, Sarkozy complained to Obama: “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched on. The disgruntled US president couldn’t hide his own irritation: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama replied.
Netanyahu humiliated Obama in Congress, in the media and on the world stage. He even lectured Obama on the ‘realities’ of the Middle East in front of the White House cameras, as if he were an ignorant interloper. It wasn’t the first time. When Netanyahu first visited the White House as prime minister two decades ago, his hosts reckoned he was “nearly insufferable, lecturing and telling us how to deal with the Arabs”. After he left, US President Bill Clinton observed: “He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.”
A few years later, Netanyahu would boast to an Israeli settler while a local television station was filming: “I know what America is … America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.” Eight years later, Obama has all but surrendered to Netanyahu on Palestine, and now it’s French President Francois Hollande who’s stepping in to try his luck.
The timing of the new French initiative is driven by French politics and geopolitics, not any new urgency of signs of a breakthrough. France wanted to give the peace process one last push before it recognises the Palestinian state as most countries of the world have done.
Hollande sent his foreign minister to change Netanyahu’s mind. As an incentive, Paris even withdrew its ultimatum to recognise the Palestinian state. And yet, as expected, Jean-Marc Ayrault failed miserably. A few days later, Hollande dispatched his prime minister, Manuel Valls, apparently with no assurance of a different result, let alone success. He failed utterly.
All of which beg the question: why would the seasoned and savvy French diplomacy expose itself to yet another round of Israeli humiliation? And why would Paris succeed where Washington failed? If Hollande and Valls reckon their support of Israel should count for something, they need only look at the last three US presidents who dealt with Netanyahu.
For all practical purposes, Netanyahu gives precedence to local politics over foreign alliances when it to comes to ‘peace and security’. Netanyahu’s answer to the French initiative has come in the form of a new alliance with the ultra nationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the appointment of its head as defence minister.
Among many other outrages, Lieberman wants ‘disloyal’ Palestinians in Israel beheaded. But Lieberman is just as bad as many other coalition partners. Israeli society has moved so far to the Right over the past four decades, Western leaders are more likely to encounter fascists than peacemakers in the new Israeli government and parliament.
Even the presumably less extremist Likud leader, Dan Meridor, who’s also president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, reckons the French initiative is a “very serious and dangerous attack” on Israel’s standing in the world. Never mind that all those yielding influence at the conference are supporters of Israel.
And so by further expanding and radicalising his ruling coalition, Netanyahu is able to strengthen his base and confront or deter western leaders from even thinking of imposing something, anything on Israel, as they tried to do back in 1991.
Twenty-five years ago, Israel’s premier and Netanyahu’s boss Yitzhak Shamir initially rejected and then reluctantly agreed to attend the International Peace conference in Madrid, but only after the United States accepted all his preconditions. And it was left to the younger and more energetic deputy foreign minister, Netanyahu, to articulate or rather obfuscate Israel’s true position.
That position, as Shamir later admitted, was to drag out peace talks with the Palestinians for a decade while vastly increasing the number of Jewish settlers in Israeli-occupied territories. Does this sound familiar? It should. Because that’s what Netanyahu is doing.
Like Shamir, he will exact maximum concessions in order to attend, if at all. And then he’ll insist on open-ended bilateral negotiations, while Israel eats away at the West Bank and Jerusalem. For Netanyahu and the Israeli Right, better the West Bank without peace than peace without the West Bank. This could only change when the West stops appeasing Netanyahu and rewarding Israel for its occupation.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘On Netanyahu, peace and the West’.