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Netanyahu’s clashes with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were blessings in disguise

January 4, 2017 at 2:46 am

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama on September 30, 2016 [REUTERS/Pool via Reuters TV]

On the face of it the Israeli prime minister should be giddy with joy. The eleventh-hour effort by the Obama administration to rescue the “two-state solution” has only given succour to the most hard-line advocates of Israeli irredentism while the incoming Trump administration promises virtually carte blanche support. But this may yet backfire.

According to a range of Obama’s top aides, the decision to abstain, rather than veto, UN Security Council Resolution 2334 – which expressed “grave concern” over the continued construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank – was driven by the Obama-White House’s deep frustration with the Netanyahu government’s apparently flagrant disrespect for the US desire for a “two-state solution”. Moreover, Netanyahu also reacted with a variety of diplomatic snubs to other members of the security council .

In other words, in Kerry’s view, with every new development of settlements constructed in the occupied West Bank the prospect of a “two-state solution” becomes more distant and Israel takes a step closer to formalising the grim reality of an apartheid regime where two peoples subsist separately and unequally within the borders of one state.In his speech, on 28 December, Secretary of State, John Kerry explained the White House’s concerns. “The status quo is leading towards one state and perpetual occupation, but most of the public either ignores it or has given up hope that anything can be done to change it. And with this passive resignation, the problem only gets worse, the risks get greater and the choices are narrowed.”

Yet rather than heed these warnings, the government of Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu struck back at the Obama administration, trotting out well-worn talking points that reference Israel’s belief in its own exceptionalism while ignoring the reality on the ground. Moreover, in a Twitter exchange with the US President-Elect, Donald Trump, Netanyahu was ready to embrace a new era of “friendship” and “clear-cut support for Israel”.

The Trump effect

But what will a Trump presidency really mean for Israel and Palestine? It is possible that inflammatory and conspicuously one-sided rhetoric or actions by Trump – or his wild-eyed pro-settlement ambassador – will destroy hope among Palestinians of an independent state. But this assumes that there is currently a popular belief in the prospect of a meaningful, independent, Palestinian state that could be dashed and, as recent polling shows, this is obviously not true – two thirds of the Palestinian public do not see the two-state solution as viable.

But there is another danger for the Prime Minister of Israel. This is that, during the term of the 45 presidency, Netanyahu will no longer be able to play the role of a populist outsider, defending Israel against the world. Indeed, even back in 1996 Bibi’s original elevation to office came as a result of harsh campaigning against the beginnings of the peace process, which he painted as a betrayal by the then establishment elite.

Bibi benefited from clashes with the US

When in office, he strengthened his credentials as Israel’s champion by taking on US president Bill Clinton and effectively stalling negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s stubbornness – despite a overwhelming American support for the State of Israel prior to and during negotiations – was such a frustration to the White House that Clinton reportedly asked “Who the f*ck does he think he is? Who’s the f*cking superpower here?” after one meeting in 1996.

Netanyahu even went on to brag about his ability to play the American audience when he was caught on camera in 2001 (the tape became public in 2010) speaking of his ability to “easily manoeuvre” the world’s only superpower and end the peace process.

While, if taken at face value, Bibi lost out under Obama – particularly in relation to the Iran-nuclear deal – he managed to leverage his hyperbolic outrage with the US president into the largest ever military aid package between two countries, while at the same time grandstanding his discontent with Obama during his narrow election win in 2015.

But under a Trump presidency, Netanyahu will not find it as easy to rale against the overbearing hand of his country’s main benefactor and – should Bibi be seen as not taking advantage enough of this opportunity by promoting a right wing, pro-settler agenda – this could potentially expose the prime minister to being outflanked by one, or several, of the even more ardently nationalist figures from within his own cabinet.

Thus for now Netanyahu can enjoy his moment. His overreaction to the UN Security Council resolution and the rhetoric of a lame duck president has successfully deflected domestic attention from his woes at home – which also include a corruption investigation – and he can bask in the warmth the forthcoming apparent golden age under the businessman president.

But Bibi shouldn’t get too comfortable, without the White House as a foil, he will no longer be able to play his trump card.

This article was originally published by ‘The I’ newspaper, on Tuesday 3 January. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.