Israel and the U.S. on a Collision Course?

Categories: Letters from the Leadership



Last week in this column I reported on my recent trip to Israel, focusing on the outcome of the recent elections there. This week I am going to share analysis on a few topics based upon speakers I heard during the Conference of Presidents (CoP) and the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meetings, as well as private conversations with politicians and party activists.


Since I have returned from Israel, one of the most common questions I have been asked is: Does the fact that Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is setting up a narrow right-religious government coupled with the dramatic drop of support for the Labor Party and Meretz in the election mean that Israeli society has moved dramatically to the right?


While it is certainly accurate to say that more Israelis voted for right of center and right wing parties during this election, the “move to the right” is less clear.  When Americans think about right and left in Israeli political terms, they are generally focused on one issue – peace with the Palestinians, so I’ll begin with that point.


Raviv Drucker, a Channel 10 political commentator, suggested that while it is conventional wisdom that “Israeli public opinion has shifted over the past ten years to the left” when it comes to acceptance of the two-state solution, he pointed out that “there hasn’t been an election campaign in the past 20 years where we heard the word peace so little.” Dana Weiss, the host of Israel’s “Meet the Press” feels that “on some level, Bibi represents the Israeli public view; in the 15 years since Oslo nothing has worked and there is no current diplomatic horizon, particularly with Hamas in Gaza.”


So does this mean that the majority of the Israeli public has reversed their view in support of the establishment of a Palestinian state?


My sense is that the people in the center of the Israeli political map don’t believe peace is possible right now and they want the government to manage the situation as best they can until “the time is right.” As Yaron Dekel, a popular morning radio talk show host, said the only real solution is one with two states and that “Israelis are fickle when it comes to peace. Put an agreement on the table, they will support it.” Drucker concurred, stating that “if President Obama will bring a real peace deal with the Palestinians or Syrians, we will sign.” Historically, this has been true whether one goes back to the withdrawal from Sinai under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Oslo Peace Accords and Prime Minister Rabin or the disengagement from Gaza of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.


Finally on this point, Professor Avi Degani, the CEO of the well-known polling organization Geocartographic Institute, feels that the notion of left and right, other than in the extremes, is disappearing and that a sense of “Social Securitism” is emerging. He points to the 85 Knesset seats garnered by Likud, Kadima, Labor and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) party as evidence that people want to vote for who they believe will provide a safe and secure environment for their country and family. He says that all of the parties talk about addressing “social needs” and that the left is not perceived as “leading in caring of the workers and the weaker elements of our society.” I will go into this in more detail when I discuss the situation of the left in Israel today.


This brings me to the other question that I am regularly asked: Is Israel on a collision course with the United States around the peace process?


On the surface, the obvious answer would appear to be yes. Netanyahu is forming a right leaning government and refuses to commit to adhering to previous agreements, be it the Quartet’s Road Map or the agreements from the Annapolis meetings held in December, 2007. In order to form his government, he needs support from enthusiastic promoters of the West Bank settlement enterprise.


Everyone has noticed and spoken about the “speed and depth of Obama’s engagement” with Israel and Palestine, including US Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham, who spoke to the opening session of the CoP mission.  Cunningham noted that the president’s first international phone calls after his inauguration were to leaders in the region and that Special Envoy George Mitchell was in the process of setting up a staffed office in Israel. In other words, he personally plans on spending a lot of time in the region. While I was in Israel, the Ma’ariv newspaper ran a headline which read “Apprehension: Mitchell Recommends Cut in American Aid.” The article discusses one of the touchiest issues of the U.S.-Israel relationship; will the U.S. tie any part of the Israeli financial aid package to the cessation of continued expansion of West Bank settlements. While there is no stated change in U.S. policy on this issue, Mitchell has left the distinct impression with Israeli security officials that it is on the table.


I left Israel with the sense that Israeli politicians deeply appreciate that Israel cannot ignore the Obama administration’s views on the integral role the Israel-Arab conflict plays in U.S. global strategy. Former minister and peace negotiator Yossi Beilin went as far as to say that “it doesn’t matter who is prime minister, the U.S. government is in the driver’s seat.”


Whether such a collision occurs depends, in my opinion, on three variables: What path Netanyahu chooses, where the U.S. government decides to focus and what happens on the Palestinian front. For purposes of this column, I am going to be brief and somewhat telegraphic in covering these points.


If as it appears, Netanyahu ends up with a narrow right-of-center majority in the Knesset, he will be in “government survival mode” from day one. He will want to avoid immediate conflicts with the U.S. government, particularly as he seeks coordination on his top priority, addressing Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. As a result, he may very well not give in to his settler wing and instead attempt to implement his “build the West Bank economy and security forces first” approach and deflect the related diplomatic front. Since Israel’s share of the global economic crisis is weighing on the country, he should be able to convince his new government, if he chooses, to focus on that pressing issue, rather than building more West Bank housing.


While U.S. policy clearly favors the continuation and conclusion of the peace process, this does not necessarily mean that a confrontation with the Israeli government is imminent. The U.S. will want to see what stance Netanyahu takes as well as the reality on the Palestinian side. Based on recent visits to Syria by multiple White House and congressional officials, Obama and Netanyahu could even agree on a “Syria first” initiative as part of a regional solution. Don’t forget, during his first premiership, Netanyahu entertained a Syria peace deal.


The West Bank-Gaza division makes the Palestinian aspect of this formula extremely complicated. To cast some light on this subject, I will share with you comments made to the CoP by Dr. Khalil Shikaki, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.


Shikaki characterized 2008 as “a year of hope” and added that “now West Bank Palestinians expect the worst.” After the disappointment of the Olmert and Livni period they believe negotiations are futile and will focus on freezing settlement activity. He acknowledged the growth in Hamas’ popularity as a result of the war in Gaza and is concerned about potential gains by Hamas in the next round of Palestinian elections. He puts a great deal of hope into the possible release of the popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti from Israeli prison as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal.


At age 49, he represents the younger, post-Arafat generation and Shikaki believes that he could defeat a Hamas candidate and get elected as the next Palestinian Authority (PA) president. As crass as it sounds, precisely because he was convicted by an Israeli court in 2004 of five counts of murder, he could command the support of a wide swath of the Palestinian public for the moderate views he now holds.


Bottom line, Shikaki believes that in the short term,  even without meaningful peace negotiations, if the Israeli government really removes large numbers of West Bank roadblocks, the local economy grows and Barghouti is elected the next PA president, it will “keep the nationalists (Fatah) in the game and could blunt Hamas’s rise on West Bank.” Ultimately, strong American intervention will be required, he said, to get negotiations back on track, starting from all of the previous agreements and understandings reached with various Israeli governments.


In summary, all of the above suggests that the parties might have short term motivation to avoid the aforementioned collision, but sooner or later it will likely arrive at Netanyahu’s doorstep.


Yes, I still owe you some insight into the situation of the left in Israel. Stay tuned.

About Kenneth Bob, National President

Kenneth Bob is the National President of Ameinu. He is a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors,  the treasurer of Board of Directors of J Street and a board member of the Forward Association. Ken is a past chair of the Habonim Dror Foundation, the national alumni association of the Labor Zionist youth movement, providing financial support for their educational programming throughout North America. In his professional life, Ken is an experienced entrepreneur and currently provides management consulting for small and merging companies.
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