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Cornered at last

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Cornered at last
Neither PR, the PA nor the US will help Likud, predicts Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem

With only one week in office, the new Israeli government is discovering in earnest that adopting an extreme platform with regard to the Palestinian issue is one thing and reconciling it with hard global political realities is quite another.

This inherent predicament is increasingly becoming "the" defining feature of a government considered the most right-wing, most bloated and most eccentric in Israel’s history.

Indeed, with as many as 30 cabinet ministers and nine deputy ministers under his command, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is trying desperately to bring some harmony to the government.

However, it is clear that this task can only be partly realised given the delicate balance of power within the broad and potentially fragile coalition as well as Netanyahu's own vulnerability to blackmail by some coalition partners who could bring the government down at any moment of their choosing, depending on their mood.

This week, the first "surprise" came from Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's gung-ho foreign minister, who made it clear that as far as he was concerned, the word "Annapolis" didn't exist in his lexicon and that even his acceptance of the more generalised Quartet-backed "roadmap" was conditional on the implementation of several reservations introduced by former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon, which rendered the original Israeli-conceived plan unworkable.

"The Annapolis conference has no validity," said Lieberman, who was speaking at a handover ceremony at the Israeli Foreign Ministry on 1 April. He added that "there is one document that obligates us and that is not the Annapolis conference."

Lieberman, who some Israeli sources contend has come to view himself as "second amongst equals" vis-à-vis Netanyahu, argued that Israel was not legally bound by the Annapolis understandings since "the Israeli government never ratified the agreement, nor did the Knesset."

Israeli and Palestinian leaders had agreed to launch "vigorous, ongoing and continuous" negotiations that would lead to a comprehensive peace deal and make every effort to conclude it before the end of 2008.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni lashed out at Lieberman, accusing him of "endangering Israel's vital national interests." She called on Netanyahu to "reign in" Lieberman.

Embarrassed by the "crass and unrefined nature" of Lieberman's remarks, Netanyahu remained silent for the most part, which observers opine reflects Netanyahu's reluctance to upset Lieberman who had reportedly warned that he would "rock the boat upon any interference in my ministry from above".

Netanyahu's spokesman said though that "individual statements by cabinet ministers don't necessarily reflect the government's view." He pointed out that the "next few weeks" would be dedicated to setting a policy for the advancement of the peace process. "Today, we will establish a political-security cabinet and in the coming weeks we will complete the formulation of our policy to advanced peace and security," he said.

Speaking tersely and vaguely, apparently in order to keep all parties happy, including Lieberman and the Obama administration, Netanyahu said he would seek arrangements allowing the Palestinians to "govern themselves" but without endangering Israeli security.

He didn't utter the words "Palestinian state" or "two-state solution". Netanyahu has pointed out on several occasions that any peace arrangement with the Palestinians would have to allow Israel to retain control over Palestinian borders, border crossings, electricity, water resources, airspace, harbours and airports. In other words, the occupation would remain intact in one way or the other.

Palestinian leaders angrily dismissed the "anti-peace remarks" by Israeli government officials, describing the new government in Israel as "racist and fascist".

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the Israeli government would have to accept the creation of a Palestinian state, stop construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and remove army roadblocks crippling Palestinian economic activities. "Otherwise, there can be no peace process," said Abbas who was speaking during a rare visit to Baghdad this week.

There is no doubt that Lieberman et al are going to be a PR liability for the PR-savvy Netanyahu. Nonetheless, Netanyahu doesn't really have a problem with Lieberman's political ideas which he shares to a very large extent. Netanyahu's main reservations are over Lieberman's "brazen and undiplomatic style" of expressing his views which harm the Israeli government's image in the West, especially in the United States.

A few Israeli commentators are warning the Israeli premier against adopting a simplistic approach to the Palestinian issue whereby the Israeli government would use agreeable words of good will when speaking to the Obama administration while remaining faithful to the same old extremist policies in the West Bank, such as stealing Palestinian land and building more Jewish colonies on occupied territory.

This week, President Obama made it clear anew that his administration was still committed to the two-state solution and that he expected the Israeli prime minister to honour the Israeli commitment to the Annapolis understandings.

Speaking during his visit to Turkey this week, Obama said the following with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: "Let me be clear. The United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. That is a goal shared by Palestinians, Israelis, and people of good will around the world. This is a goal that the parties agreed to in the roadmap and at Annapolis. And that is a goal that I will actively pursue as president."

Obama's remarks made some Israeli officials lose their composure, with one angry Israeli official saying "we always knew that Obama would turn out to be hostile to Israel." Another official, Environment Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) openly defied the US president, saying that "Israel doesn't take orders from Obama."

Erdan, notorious for his racist anti-Arab views, said "the Israeli policy is made in Israel, not in Washington," adding that "in voting for Binyamin Netanyahu, the citizens of Israel have decided that they will not become the US's 51st state."

A potential standoff with Washington is unlikely to be in Israel's favour. Obama is a very popular president and using the powerful Jewish lobby against the president at this time could boomerang on Israel and its supporters on the American arena. AIPAC itself is under fire from several quarters in the US for exerting too much influence on American politics and foreign policy. Moreover, there are certain signs that Obama is not going to quietly surrender to the Jewish lobby even if and when that lobby decides to move against the president on Israel's behalf.

A few weeks ago, Obama was reportedly quoted as telling a high-ranking Chinese official that the US is "the United States of America, not the United States of Israel."

In fact, there are already several signals from Washington that don't bode well for Israel, at least the present right-wing government. First, the Obama administration has already proven that it won't be at Israel's beck and call, as the former Bush administration was.

The less bellicose approach towards Iran adopted by the Obama administration has sent a significant message to Israel; namely, that the American policy towards the Middle East and the Muslim world in general is going to be made in Washington, not in Tel Aviv, and that American interests will always come first when formulating this policy.

Second, the latest overtures Obama made towards the Muslim world during his visit to Turkey this week are certainly bad news for Israel. Israel has been the main beneficiary of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq as well as the so-called war on terror. Hence, observers suggest, even the most magical public relations formula won't help Netanyahu as long as he continues to cling to his radical Jabotinskian views regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. 

Sourced from Al-Ahram Weekly  9 – 15 April 2009