Analysis / James M. Dorsey: Netanyahu turns Congress into cheerleaders to strengthen his domestic position


Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has turned members of the US Congress into his domestic cheerleaders.

To be sure, Mr. Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Tuesday demonstrates to US President Barak Obama in terms that cannot be misunderstood the degree of support the prime minister enjoys in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Mr. Netanyahu was forceful, but said little new. He was firm in laying down often-reiterated conditions for the creation of a Palestinian state that are unacceptable to Palestinians, but with the exception of the right of return of Palestinian refugees did not exclude them from being issues to be negotiated.

Equally importantly, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama are not that far apart on the principle of the borders of a future Palestinian state, albeit that they employ very different language. Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. Netanyahu does not refer to Israel’s pre-1967 borders as the basis for the boundaries of a Palestinian state.

Yet, his assertion that those borders are “indefensible” and that Israel will not return to them is a negative articulation of the formulation Mr. Obama used last week and that set the stage for the current power struggle in US-Israeli relations: pre-1967 borders adjusted by mutually agreed land swaps.

Mr. Netanyahu’s speech laid down a gauntlet for Mr. Obama. Backed by Congress’ overwhelming support, Mr. Netanyahu effectively is putting Mr. Obama’s mettle to the test. Mr. Netanyahu wants to see whether the president will stand up for his vision for a Middle East peace that differs substantially from his own or whether he will cave in with US presidential elections a mere 18 months away.

Nonetheless, in many ways Mr. Netanyahu’s speech was as much addressed to an Israeli audience as it was to Mr. Obama. The speech gave the prime minister the shield he needs to fend off criticism in September if and when the United Nations general assembly recognizes Palestinian statehood and positioned him for his next election campaign.

Elections in Israel are not scheduled for another two years but many question whether Mr. Netanyahu’s fragile coalition with the likes of Avigdor Lieberman, who is even more hard-line than he is, will survive that long.

Mr. Lieberman is certain not to be fooled by Mr. Netanyahu’s rejectionist packaging of the fact that he and Mr. Obama do not fundamentally differ on the borders of a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu’s reference to “generosity” in giving up land and “painful concessions and unprecedented compromises” will also not have been lost on Mr. Lieberman. To Mr. Lieberman, surrender of even some Israeli settlements on the West Bank and acceptance of Israel’s pre-1967 borders no matter what adjustments are made is unacceptable. Granted, Mr. Lieberman may at this point not want to push this to the brink on the assumption that there is no chance of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resuming any time soon.

But Mr. Netanyahu is taking nothing for granted and in doing so, it matters little to him how Palestinians respond. From his perspective, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ reconciliation with Hamas has taken at least for now peace talks off the table.

As a result, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech was an outline of his political platform for Israeli elections whenever those may be. It contained the building blocks for his campaign against Mr. Lieberman’s Yisraeli Beiteinu and the more centrist opposition Kadima party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni: a willingness to negotiate peace; acceptance of the principle of a Palestinian state, but on Mr. Netanyahu’s terms – security, recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, and no negotiations with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

With that in mind, it is no surprise that Mr. Netanyahu failed to throw Mr. Obama a bone with regard to the peace process. That was not Mr. Netanyahu’s intention. Instead, the speech reaffirmed Mr. Netanyahu as Israel’s foremost orator and most eloquent spokesman – an important asset in a world in which Israel is likely to find itself increasingly isolated.

That will be evident when in September the UN general assembly votes almost certainly overwhelmingly in favor of Palestinian statehood. That vote could well spark celebratory demonstrations on the West Bank and among Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in Israel itself that lead to clashes with Israeli security forces.

Pointing to his speech in Congress, Mr. Netanyahu will be able to argue that he has done what he could to derail UN recognition of Palestinian statehood by putting forward a framework for peace, expressing willingness to negotiate and declaring that Israel was ready to make substantial concessions.

Of course, all of this doesn’t bring the creation of a Palestinian state as a reality or Middle East peace any closer. If anything, it capitalizes on the Palestinians’ dilemma of being doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t.

Achieving Palestinian statehood will produce at best a feel-good effect for Palestinians and signal that the Palestinians are no longer putting their eggs exclusively in the US basket. The UN vote is however unlikely to persuade Mr. Obama, Israel’s closest ally, to really twist Mr. Netanyahu’s arm. The question is what will.

Mr. Obama suggested with his vision for Middle East peace that his heart is in the right place but that may not mean much with a Congress that seemingly uncritically supports Mr. Netanyahu.

(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])