OWNED: How PM Netanyahu Outfoxed Obama and Kerry…YET AGAIN
They never learn, do they? Though it almost never works, American leaders have been trying to intervene in Israeli politics for decades. Presidents and secretaries of state always think that if they put the right amount of pressure on Jerusalem or push various politicians to do what they want, somehow it will result in an Israeli government that will be more willing to do the bidding of the White House and the State Department. According to Haaretz, that was the behind-the-scenes story of the coalition negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog during the last week. The goal was to transform Israel’s government from a narrow right-wing coalition into a centrist unity government with Herzog as foreign minister. Reportedly, the impetus for the talks was an effort by Secretary of State John Kerry, diplomatic Quartet representative Tony Blair, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to push Herzog into Netanyahu’s arms.
But, like so many other ham-handed U.S.-led attempts to game Israel’s democratic system, it didn’t merely fail. It actually led to an even worse outcome from the point of view of State Department peace processors. Rather than a unity government with a pliable foreign minister, Netanyahu used Herzog for leverage in talks with another party. The result was that Herzog was humiliated. Instead of a narrow right-wing government with only a one-vote edge in the Knesset, Netanyahu was able to lure Avigdor Lieberman and his right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party into the coalition. That gave him a more stable seven-vote majority while also getting rid of a defense minister who was proving to be a problem.
That was game, set, and match for Netanyahu and another hard lesson for the arrogant Kerry and his boss Obama, who should have learned in the last seven-plus years that the prime minister is always able to run rings around them when it comes to this sort of thing.
There are a number of layers to this folly that need to be unpacked.
The first is the illusion that anyone in the State Department, even with the assistance of the former British prime minister and the Egyptian leader, has a clue as to how Israeli politics works. President Obama’s first months in office were spent with his foreign policy team trying to undo the results of the February 2009 Israeli election that brought Netanyahu back to power. At that time, the goal was to somehow get Tzipi Livni to topple the prime minister, but she never had a chance. And the more they tried, the firmer Netanyahu’s grip on power became. The pattern repeated itself in subsequent years as Obama picked pointless fights with the Israeli over settlements, the 1967 lines and Jerusalem. Each spat was an attempt to weaken Netanyahu, but it always backfired as the prime minister gained domestic popularity by standing up to Washington especially on consensus issues like Jerusalem.
After so many failures, any fool could have come to the conclusion that the harder the U.S. tries to openly muscle or outmaneuver Netanyahu, the stronger he gets. But Kerry is not just any fool; he’s a uniquely clueless diplomat with little understanding of the ins and outs of Israeli coalition politics and no interest in learning from his mistakes. As Haaretz reports, they understood that the passage of a two-year budget plan meant there was little chance of toppling Netanyahu by normal parliamentary means until 2019. So they sought to push forward Herzog with a plan to supposedly tempt the prime minister with the prospect of a broad coalition with an unchallengeable majority. Their leverage was the idea that Kerry would hold off on the release of a Quartet report that sharply criticized Israel about settlements.
But neither Kerry nor the equally clueless Blair understood that Netanyahu was playing three-dimensional chess while they were attempting to win at checkers. Instead of establishing an Israeli government with a weak link determined to gain their favor at the foreign ministry, Netanyahu used their maneuver to create one more to his liking.
It’s possible that Netanyahu seriously considered adding Herzog to his Cabinet which leads to the second lesson that Obama, Kerry, and Blair haven’t learned: the political balance of power in Israel has already shifted to the point where no one, not even Herzog was likely to do what they wanted. Though Herzog talked a lot about wanting to restart the peace process, as I noted yesterday, the reason why Netanyahu was ready to work with him was because they agreed that a two-state solution was impossible for the foreseeable circumstances. Indeed, outside of the far left and the readers of Haaretz, there is a broad Israeli political consensus that realizes there is no Palestinian partner for peace. Even if Herzog had become foreign minister it wouldn’t have created the opening that Kerry wanted because everyone in Israel (though no one in the Obama administration) knows that the goal of the Palestinian Authority is to avoid being pushed into talks where they would be forced to either accept a peace
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