Bibi in the States

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back home from a high-stakes trip to America. The visit put Israel’s most important alliance under a microscope, with so much riding on it. But how much of what he hoped to achieve from the visit will come to pass?

Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Hilary Clinton. (Photo: REUTERS)
Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Hilary Clinton. (Photo: REUTERS)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back home from a high-stakes trip to America. The visit put Israel’s most important alliance under a microscope, with so much riding on it. But how much of what he hoped to achieve from the visit will come to pass?

First of all, Netanyahu hoped that he was saying farewell; that it was the last he would see of Barack Obama, the outgoing US President with whom he has a famously turbulent relationship. They said goodbye to each other, and both probably were silently saying “good riddance”, in what was scheduled as their final meeting.

But will Obama let Netanyahu wind things up so cordially? Seven weeks is a long time in politics, and Obama can, if he wishes, wreak diplomatic havoc for Netanyahu before the November 8 American election. 

Netanyahu fears that Obama could try to impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before he leaves office, backing Israel into a corner with little choice but to accept it. He raised this in his closed-door meeting with Obama last week, and urged him not to. But the cards are in Obama’s hands. If the outgoing President doesn’t take such an extreme step, he may still publish a peace plan as he leaves office, which would place massive pressure on his successor to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian issue in line with his views. Netanyahu dreads such a scenario – Obama haunting him from beyond the presidency.

The bright side for Netanyahu is that he now knows that, so long as he gets through to November 8 without any attempt by Obama to impose terms of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, his successor will stand against a dictated peace. 

He met both of the major contenders for the presidency. Donald Trump is more supportive of Netanyahu’s politics than any past American president, and Hillary Clinton stressed “her opposition to any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to her campaign.

Netanyahu got what he wanted from his meetings with the presidential hopefuls on Sunday, notably declarations of American-Israeli friendship and of support for Israel’s security. He also got a bonus from Trump: a commitment that he will break with the norm of the international community and “recognise Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel”. The international community’s refusal to recognise Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem irks Netanyahu, and such a move would delight him.

Some other parts of his trip ended on more of a flat note. These include Bibi’s grand invitation. Speaking at the United Nations he asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to give a speech in the Knesset, and said that he wants to address the Palestinian parliament. It was an exciting idea and it’s true that the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat addressed Knesset before the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. 

However, Abbas is nowhere near ready for such a move, especially given the strong internal pressures he faces. What’s more, Netanyahu does not have the power to extend such an invitation, the Palestinian parliament that he wants to address hardly ever meets, and his audience saw the invitation more as shtick than serious. 

Netanyahu also outlined a bold hope regarding the United Nations. He said that as Israel becomes more admired internationally, and as it succeeds in current moves to forge ties with more Arab states, the UN will end its disdain for Israel. “The war against Israel at the UN is over. Perhaps some of you don’t know it yet, but I am confident that one day in the not-too-distant future you will also get the message from your president or from your prime minister informing you that the war against Israel at the United Nations has ended,” he predicted. 

He went on to say that “regardless of what happens in the months ahead, I have total confidence that in the years ahead the revolution in Israel’s standing among the nations will finally penetrate this hall of nations. I have so much confidence, in fact, that I predict that a decade from now an Israeli prime minister will stand right here where I am standing and actually applaud the UN.” 

Netanyahu would love to leave a legacy of improved ties between Israel and the Arab states, but the Arab states are not ready to be open about improving relationships without a diplomatic Israeli-Palestinian process on the horizon. And despite the big bold gestures like inviting Abbas to the Knesset, it doesn’t seem that Netanyahu is ready for such a process. His UN hopes were, unless premised on an assumption of a peace agreement, far-fetched. 

One area in which he excelled in New York related to the Palestinian Authority’s latest gimmick, namely an attempt to sue Britain for the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel. Abbas had demanded in his UN address that the British apologise for the declaration. 

Netanyahu ridiculed this – and his ridicule resonated. “The Palestinians may just as well sue Iran for the Cyrus Declaration, which enabled the Jews to rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem 2500 years ago,” he said. “Come to think of it, why not a Palestinian class action suit against Abraham for buying that plot of land in Hebron where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish people were buried 4000 years ago? You’re not laughing. It’s as absurd as that. To sue the British government for the Balfour Declaration? Is he kidding? And this is taken seriously here?”

This was nicely done by Bibi, but it was a short moment in a long and very challenging trip. In truth, only in the months after Obama has left office and his successor has taken the reins, will Bibi be able to determine whether this trip went well. 


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