But are their feelings justified? Though Netanyahu has never been an easy partner for Western leaders, it’s hard to see why he would inspire so much animus from the two presidents now.Who is the real block to more peaceful relations in the Middle East and who has been more deceitful and obstructionist: Netanyahu or Abbas?
Since taking office in early 2009, around the same time as Obama, Netanyahu has been mostly responsive to the U.S. president’s initiatives despite heading a rightwing coalition that views concessions to the Palestinians with distaste, to say the least. Early on he announced his acceptance of Palestinian statehood, something he has never done; he responded to Obama’s misguided demand for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem by imposing a six-month moratorium.
Earlier this year Netanyahu reacted angrily when Obama blindsided him with a speech publicly calling on Israel to accept a territorial formula for a Palestinian state based on its pre-1967 borders, with swaps of territory. Less noticed is the fact that the Israeli prime minister has since accepted those terms.
Though Netanyahu has recently allowed new settlement construction, it mostly has been in neighborhoods that Palestinian le[a]ders have already conceded will be part of Israel in a final settlement. This week he told his cabinet that West Bank outposts declared illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court would be uprooted.
In other words, Netanyahu has been an occasionally difficult but ultimately cooperative partner. He can be accused of moving too slowly and offering too little, but not of failing to heed American initiatives.
And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? For five of the six months of the Israeli settlement moratorium he refused Obama’s appeals to begin negotiations; after two meetings, he returned to his intransigence. Rejecting a personal appeal from Obama, he took his bid for statehood to the United Nations, where he may yet force the United States to use its Security Council veto.Actually, I think that Obama came into office seeing Israel as the block to a more peaceful Middle East and has not seemed to change his stance. Their disdain for Netanyahu says a lot more about them than it does about him.
France last month joined an appeal from the Mideast diplomatic “quartet” — the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations — for Israel and the Palestinians to return unconditionally to negotiations. Netanyahu accepted. Abbas said no.
Abbas, it’s fair to say, has gone from resisting U.S. and French diplomacy to actively seeking to undermine it. Yet it is Netanyahu whom Sarkozy finds “unbearable,” and whom Obama groans at having to “deal with every day.” If there is an explanation for this, it must be personal; in substance, it makes little sense.
Jonathon Tobin puts his finger on what really irks them about Netanyahu.
Despite his reputation as a hard-liner (a phrase treated in many press accounts as if it were part of his name), Netanyahu has a long record of attempts to conciliate the Palestinians in order to make peace. During his first term as prime minister in the 1990’s he signed two agreements conceding parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. He enacted a settlement-building freeze in the West Bank during his current administration and formally endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state. But despite all of this, Netanyahu has never consented to playing the familiar game in which the onus for peace is placed only on Israel to make concessions and not the Palestinians.
Throughout both of his terms as Israel’s leader, Netanyahu has insisted on pointing out the failures of the Palestinians to abide by their Oslo commitments. Rather than meekly nod along when Obama or Sarkozy speak of the need for Israel to relinquish territory, Netanyahu has had the chutzpah to publicly talk back to them about Israel’s rights and not just its immediate security needs. Though he has sometimes given in to their demands if he thought it was in his country’s interests, he has also made it clear that doing so is a grave concession that could bring deadly consequences. Any Israeli who speaks in this manner, which necessarily complicates the efforts of the peace processers to ignore the Palestinians’ reluctance to make peace, is not going to be liked.
Much like Menachem Begin, the first member of his party to serve as Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu cannot play the unctuous diplomat. Though he has made concessions and sought to reach out to other countries as well as ably making his country’s case before the American people, he does so as a proud, stiff-necked Jew, not a supplicant or a starry-eyed dreamer who is beguiled by an unrealistic vision about the intentions of his Palestinian negotiating partners.
Netanyahu has more than his share of personal flaws. But what Sarkozy and Obama are telling us is that the Israeli won’t play by their rules and knuckle under when his country’s rights are imperiled. Though he values Israel’s alliance with the United States, Netanyahu’s idea of his responsibilities is one in which he prioritizes defending his country’s interests over making nice with heads of state.
It should be conceded that his tactics don’t always work well, and he won’t win any foreign popularity contests. But the issue here isn’t Netanyahu. An Israeli leader who won’t acquiesce to the lies other leaders tell about the Palestinians’ peaceful intentions will never be loved. Sarkozy and Obama don’t resent Netanyahu as much as they do Israel.