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Netanyahu Must Play for Time

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Just ahead of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's trip next week to Washington, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas went on a charm offensive towards the Israeli media. On Tuesday Abbas invited representatives of the Hebrew-language press to his office in Ramallah and assured them of his good intentions towards Israel.


We have been here before. In Netanyahu's last go-around as Prime Minister, it seemed like every time he was due to visit Washington, then president Bill Clinton's advisors would set up a meeting for Abbas's predecessor Yassir Arafat with the Israeli media. Arafat would talk about how much he wanted peace with Israel, and how he was just waiting for Netanyahu to agree to embrace the cause of peace.

The peace-crazed Israeli media enthusiastically reported Arafat's lies to the Israeli people without questioning either Arafat's motives or his honesty. Has they exhibited even a minimal amount of journalistic competence, they would have at least checked to see what the Arafat-controlled Palestinian media was reporting about their meeting with the "Rais."

But that would have ruined their Netanyahu-bashing narrative. And so the Israeli public was denied knowledge that not only did the Arafat-controlled Palestinian media fail to report their meeting, Arafat's newspapers and television broadcasts routinely told the Palestinian people that there could be no peace with the Jews. Indeed, they daily exhorted the Palestinians to view the destruction of Israel as their greatest goal.

In a similar manner, this week as Israel's newspapers published ecstatic headlines about Abbas's moderation and desire for peace, the Abbas-controlled Palestinian media made no mention of the meeting. Moreover, in recent weeks, the Abbas-controlled Palestinian media have been intensifying their incitement against Israel and Jews.

As Palestinian Media Watch reported this week, on Tuesday Abbas-controlled PATV aired a sermon by the PA's Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein. The mufti said, "The Jews, the enemies of Allah and of His Messenger, the enemies of Allah and of His Messenger! Enemies of humanity in general, and of Palestinians in particular... The Prophet says: 'You shall fight the Jews and kill them...'"


Similarly, last week PATV re-broadcast a "documentary" film in which all of Israel is described as "occupied Palestine." In one excerpt cited by PMW, the film's narrator asserts, "The West Bank and Gaza have another section in Palestine which is the Palestinian coast that spreads along the [Mediterranean] sea, from ...Ashkelon in the south, until Haifa, in the Carmel Mountains.

"Haifa is a well-known Palestinian port. [Haifa] enjoyed a high status among Arabs and Palestinians especially before it fell to the occupation [Israel] in 1948. To its north, we find Acre. East of Acre, we reach a city with history and importance, the city of Tiberias, near a famous lake, the Sea of Galilee. Jaffa, an ancient coastal city, is the bride of the sea, and Palestine's gateway to the world."

Tuesday, the moderate Abbas told his Israeli guests that he's ready to hold direct negotiations with Netanyahu as soon as the premier gives him his positions on borders and security. As Abbas's full statement made clear, what he means by that is that he will negotiate with Netanyahu after the latter agrees to adopt his predecessor Ehud Olmert's position on borders and security. Those positions included an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines - including the division of Jerusalem -- and the stationing of foreign forces along the border with Jordan.

For its part, the Obama administration is putting its own pressure on Netanyahu to make Abbas - and US President Barack Obama happy. Over the past several weeks the administration has been pressuring Netanyahu to extend the ten-month prohibition on Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria beyond its scheduled September end date. As a sweetener to help Netanyahu swallow this strategically and politically disastrous pill, Obama and his aides claim that an extension of the draconian, bigoted policy would serve as a confidence building measure to convince Abbas to begin direct negotiations with Israel.


In Obama's bid to convince Netanyahu extend the Jewish building ban we see the foreign policy equivalent of a used car salesman's attempt to sell the same customer the same lousy car twice - using different lies each time.

Last year, Obama and his advisors justified their demand that Netanyahu act to strangle the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria by claiming that doing so would make the Arab world to begin normalizing its relations with Israel. Obama's Jewish surrogate former congressman Robert Wexler told Netanyahu last July that in exchange for barring Jews from building kindergartens in Israel's heartland, Israel would see twenty Arab embassies opening in Tel Aviv.

Of course not only did that not happen, moments after Netanyahu announced the prohibition on Jewish building, Obama's peace mediator George Mitchell claimed that his massive and unprecedented concession was insufficient. Channeling Abbas, Mitchell declared that the US expects Israel to agree to destroy all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and withdraw to the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. Weeks after Netanyahu's concession in Judea and Samaria, the administration began its onslaught against Jewish building in Jerusalem.

As the minutes tick by towards Netanyahu's visit with Obama at the White House, Netanyahu is signaling that he is willing to buy the same used car a second time. Although Netanyahu continues to insist that he will not accept preconditions for negotiations, he has empowered Defense Minister Ehud Barak to take a leading role in contacts with the PA.

Wednesday Barak announced that he will be holding direct talks with Israel-boycotting PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the coming days. Earlier this week Barak effectively announced his support for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines even without a peace treaty. In a media interview Barak claimed that that the unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and South Lebanon were great achievements that should be repeated.


Netanyahu's desire to avoid a confrontation with the Obama administration is understandable. Given the nature of the Israeli media, Netanyahu would certainly pay a political price if he were to be blamed for making the administration turn against Israel. But the truth is that today more than ever, Obama shares Netanyahu's desire to avoid an open clash.

The midterm Congressional elections are just four months away and Obama's Democratic colleagues are running scared. Polls show that the Democratic Party is likely to lose control over the House of Representatives. The Democrats will also likely see their control over the Senate weakened if not lost. As the Wall Street Journal's political analyst John Fund reported this week, out of 70 competitive Congressional districts, the Democrats will likely lose 60 and so lose control over the House.

Going into such a problematic electoral season, the last thing Obama needs is an open confrontation with Israel. A new row with Netanyahu will not only harm Democrats in key states like Florida, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania. It will harm the Democrats' fundraising efforts among Jewish American donors. Over the past several months there have been repeated reports that Jewish Americans are drastically cutting back their donations to Democrats. The current trend will likely escalate if Obama forces Netanyahu into a corner next week.

What this means is that Netanyahu is well placed to stand up to Obama's pressure. If he plays his cards wisely, he can say no to Obama and avoid an open confrontation. For instance, instead of agreeing to extend the building prohibition, Netanyahu should say that he is willing to discuss that demand in face-to-face negotiations with Abbas. Rather than agree to Abbas's preconditions, Netanyahu should say that he is willing to listen to Abbas's position in face-to-face negotiations. And so on and so forth. Such statements by Netanyahu will take the pressure for making concessions off him and put Obama and Abbas on the spot.


Even more importantly, it will buy Israel time. And buying time should be Israel's chief goal with respect to Washington today. Since taking office, Obama has repeatedly demonstrated that he will not reconsider his fundamentally hostile view of Israel. Obama's basic belief that Israel's strength and size are to blame for all the violence and radicalism in the Arab world is not subject to change regardless of how clearly and continuously events on the ground prove it wrong.

Even worse for Israel, Obama is not alone in this view. Indeed, as a report in Foreign Policy this week makes clear, Obama's position on Israel is moderate when compared to the positions being staked out in influential policy circles in the US military.

Wednesday Foreign Policy published the content of a memo written last month in the US Military's Central Command. The memo, a "Red Team," assessment of how the US should position itself vis-à-vis the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah, reveals that among key members of the US policy-making community, Israel is viewed with extreme hostility.

The leaked memo reportedly reflects the views of a significant number of senior and mid-level officers in Centcom, including large numbers of intelligence officers, as well as a significant number of area analysts stationed in the Middle East. It argues that it is wrong for the US to lump jihadist movements like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaida and Hizbullah in one group.

Dismissing the significance of the identical religious dogma that stands at the root of these movements, the memo asserts that Hamas and Hizbullah are pragmatic and important social forces with which the US must foster good relations. The memo calls for the US to support the integration of Hizbullah forces into the Lebanese military. It also calls for the US to encourage and permit the integration of Hamas forces into the US-trained Palestinian security forces.


As far as Israel is concerned, the memo blames the Jewish state for the US's failure to date to adopt these recommended policies. Moreover, the memo's authors condemn Israel's maritime blockade of Gaza as keeping "the area on the verge of a perpetual humanitarian collapse."

The Centcom memo also condemns Israel's July 2006 decision to respond to Hizbullah's unprovoked bombardment of northern Israel and its unprovoked cross-border attack against an IDF patrol in which five soldiers were killed and two were kidnapped and subsequently murdered. Denying Hizbullah's subservient relationship with the Iranian regime, the report claimed that Israel's decision to use force to defend itself against Hizbullah's acts of war served to strengthen Hizbullah's ties to Teheran.

What this memo shows is that Israel has little hope of seeing a change for the better in US policy in the near future and its best bet today is to play for time. Next week at the Oval Office Netanyahu should capitalize on his advantage four months ahead of the Congressional elections and put the burden on Obama and Abbas to show their good intentions.

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