Fault Lines In Netanyahu's Dazzling Show

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- By any standard, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance in Washington last week was stunning in its audacity and intensity -- but probably will be seen as negative rather than positive for Israel in the long run, for the fault lines it revealed and the precedents it set. His performance revealed four major breaches that may be damaging for Israel -- those between him and President Barack Obama, between the American presidency and the Congress, between the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and the rest of the country (Congress excepted), and between the Israeli people and their government. All four dynamics have their ups and downs, but when they converge, as may be the case now, Netanyahu the brash star performer in Washington last week may soon be seen as a political jerk, in his country and in the US.
Netanyahu’s extraordinary reception in the Congress, full of hysterical adulation and blind, rabid support for any position that he took, clarified an important point in current American-Israeli ties: Congress is Israel’s most important terrain and its main line of defense in the United States, which it controls with unheard of unanimity. This is due to the very simple fact that every American member of Congress lives in absolute fear of being denounced by the pro-Israeli lobbies in the US as unfriendly to Israel, which would immediately result in that congressman or woman losing their seat in the next election (this has happened enough times in the recent past with people like Charles Percy, Paul Findley, Pete McCloskey and others to make incumbent members refrain from testing the pro-Israeli forces’ immense powers to destroy an American political career). This is perfectly legal and normal in American political terms, but it is distasteful to most Americans to see their parliament become a captive and manipulated tool in the hands of a foreign power that uses it as a platform to challenge the American president.
The congressional subservience to Israel revealed itself as so exaggerated last week that many Americans took notice -- and some started to speak out. Analysts, columnists and ordinary Americans alike have started asking if they should put up with a foreign leader lecturing the American president in the White House, and also asking if their Congress represents American or Israeli interests in the Middle East. This attitude will once again open the debate that started a few years ago (after the publication of the book The Israel Lobby) about whether the pro-Israel lobbies are healthy or destructive for Americans. When the American and Israeli leaders mistrust or dislike each other and each other’s policies, and when foreigners intervene between the American Congress and presidency, this can only spell trouble for Israel down the road, if these breaches are not quickly repaired.
The Obama position that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a permanent peace accord should be based on the 1967 lines with agreed swaps is not so significant for its novelty, for it is not new. But it is significant for the fact that it marks the second major issue (the Israeli settlements freeze demand being the other) on which this American president has publicly declared the preferred American policy as one that is independent of the Israeli policy. Israel cannot accept that the United States and its president openly take positions on issues of strategic concern to Israelis that diverge from the Israeli position. That Obama has now done this twice in two years is the equivalent of a political existential threat from Israel’s perspective, which is why Netanyahu went berserk and put on the show of how Israel effectively can dictate the US Congress’ position on Middle East-related issues.
Netanyahu also faces problems at home, to judge by a new poll in Israel showing that 57 percent of the population thinks he should have agreed with Obama rather than oppose him -- because the Israeli public knows that the United States is Israel’s most important long-term strategic ally, and not one to be alienated. The events in Washington last week showed that Israel relies heavily on the US for its strategic wellbeing and survival, but also that the US Congress in turn relies heavily on Israeli approval for its own wellbeing and continued incumbency. With the US Congress now finding its extreme position on Israel somewhat isolated from the relatively more balanced position of the American president and public, Israel slips dangerously towards a point where its political support in the US is as much a consequence of frightened, nearly prostituted, legislators as it is a reflection of the deep and firm support for the security of Israel that the United States traditionally saw as a worthy goal in its own right.
These fascinating movements in key Israeli-American relationships are worth monitoring. While being dazzled by Netanyahu’s powerful, self-assertive, performance in Washington, we should pay more attention to the underlying fault lines that such a dramatic show reveals. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global