Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in unfamiliar territory. He has tumbled from his once set-in-stone international pinnacle and how! Netanyahu is increasingly feeling the cold and this time it is emanating from Israel’s tried and true allies.
Netanyahu’s most recent contretemps with the international community occurred last month, following the announcement that Israel planned to construct 1,000 new Jewish colony homes in occupied East Jerusalem, which most nations, including the US, consider a provocation inconsistent with a two-state solution. Indeed, this proposal could not have been more inflammatory at a time when Palestinian frustration is at its highest for years over Israel’s onslaught on Gaza and its closure of the Al Haram Al Sharif (now partially reopened) to visitors for the first time since 2000.
Riyad Mansour, a Palestinian United Nations observer, warned that “Jerusalem is under siege” which could incite “yet another cycle of violence” and slammed the proposed colony expansion for diminishing “the territorial contiguity and integrity of our state.” Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosser was unrepentant, though. “I am here to convey one simple truth,” he said. “The people of Israel are not occupiers and we’re not settlers. Israel is our home and Jerusalem is the eternal capital of our sovereign state.”
The Obama administration has come out in support of Palestinians. Using unusually critical language, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “The United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Israeli government has moved forward” with plans to build [colonies] in a “sensitive area” of [occupied] East Jerusalem, adding the “development will only draw condemnation from the international community and distance Israel from even its closest allies.” That is , arguably, the closest to a warning the US has ever delivered to its joined-at-the-hip ally.
The atmosphere was also chilled when Israel’s Minister of Defence Moshe Ya’alon travelled to Washington recently, hoping to meet US Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. It turned out that all three were otherwise engaged, which Israel interpreted as a deliberate snub. Hardly surprising when Ya’alon had disclosed to reporters that in his view, Kerry’s efforts to mediate peace were “obsessive” and “messianic.” A vitriolic comment directed at Netanyahu personally, reported by columnist Jeffrey Goldberg and published in the Atlantic Monthly has further placed a strain on US-Israeli relations. Goldberg quoted an unnamed US official as having described the Israeli prime minister as “a chicken**** prime minister,” a “coward” and a man more concerned with staying in office than negotiating peace. Notably, the Obama administration did not deny Goldberg’s allegation. On the contrary, Kerry phoned his old friend Bibi to apologise referring to the offending remarks as “disgraceful, unacceptable and damaging.”
Adding to Israel’s increasing isolation, just days ago, Sweden became the first European Union country to officially recognise a Palestinian state joining 130 nations that have already moved to do so. This comes on the heels of a non-binding vote on the recognition of Palestine in the British parliament carried by a massive majority. This new reality will not change facts on the ground, but it does send Netanyahu a strong message and is a morale booster for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has characterised Sweden’s recognition as “historic” saying he hopes other country’s will have the courage to follow suit. Israel responded by recalling its ambassador to Sweden “for consultations.” Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sniped at Stockholm saying, “Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at Ikea.”
The greater the groundswell of support for Palestine grows, the more the US is left with egg on its face. Being constantly forced to defend Israel in the UN for taking steps contrary to White House policy is an embarrassment for the US; it smacks of double standards and gross hypocrisy. Furthermore, Washington is being careful not to alienate its Arab allies, which have partnered the US-led coalition’s fight against Daesh.
As Kerry revealed in October, the US is aware that the Israel-Palestine conflict creates resentment throughout the Arab World “As I went around and met with people in the course of our discussions about Daesh [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], the truth is there wasn’t a leader I met within the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try and get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt they had to respond to,” Kerry said, adding, “It has something to do with humiliation and denial and absence of dignity . . .”
In truth, Netanyahu has only ever paid lip-service to peace. But even if he experienced an epiphany, his hands are tied by the right-wingers in his coalition as well the general mood among ordinary Israelis that leaves little space for voices advocating two states. Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who shines a light on injustices meted out to Palestinians by the state, is, arguably, the country’s most hated man. Perhaps it will take more than just a cool breeze wafting from the community of nations to force Netanyahu’s hand, but unless Israel’s allies agree to impose a big freeze, he will merely splutter his indignation before carrying on as usual.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.