The rift between Washington and Jerusalem has to do with the changing American interests in the Middle East and internal Israeli politics, not with an end to the occupation.
In a story in The Atlantic Tuesday, Jewish-American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg cited a White House official calling Netanyahu “chickenshit,” blaming him for lack of political vision or guts. Relations between Jerusalem and Washington have reached the lowest point he can remember, Goldberg wrote. This was the top story in the Israeli media this morning. Even the pro-Netanyahu, free tabloid Israel Hayom quoted Goldberg.
In his response, Netanyahu maintained the confrontational tone, saying in the Knesset on Wednesday that he was attacked “for defending the State of Israel,” no less (thus hinting that the American administration is doing the opposite). Later, an official statement from the White House rejected the terms used by Goldberg’s sources, which was to be expected. So, what should one make of this?
1. The messenger is important: Goldberg was as pro-Bibi a journalist as one could find among Jewish Democrats. On major policy issues, Goldberg has consistently taken Jerusalem’s side: in 2010, he authored a piece that predicted Israel would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities; he criticized the administration for its public confrontations with Netanyahu and blamed PA President Mahmoud Abbas for failing to recognize Israel “as a Jewish state,” thus aiding the collapse of the Kerry Initiative. Even in his recent piece, Goldberg agrees that the time is not right for the creation of a Palestinian state — which is just what Netanyahu says. So I think Goldberg would be the last person to exaggerate the rift between the Obama Administration and the government in Jerusalem.
In fact, much of Goldberg’s unique professional position has to do with the “special relationship” between the two governments. A piece in a DC magazine once called him a mashgiah, a Hebrew term that, in this context, relates to Goldberg as the gatekeeper for what is legitimate in the Israeli-American political conversation. If Goldberg is (quoting someone) calling Bibi a “chickenshit,” then everyone can call Bibi a chickenshit.
2. This is not about a Palestinian state or an end to the occupation. The administration deserted this cause along with the Kerry mission, and it is now trying to cut its losses. I think the American goal is to contain the Israeli-Palestinian problem, not only because the chances of a breakthrough are slim compared to the political cost, but mainly due to the turmoil in the rest of the Middle East, and the danger that will emerge on new fronts. Things are complicated as they are and Netanyahu is making them much more complicated with his projects in the West Bank and the changes to the status quo in Jerusalem. Jordan’s King Abdullah raised the alarm, and since everybody is currently concerned about the stability of Abdullah’s regime, you can bet that the White House heard his warnings.
Make no mistake, the Obama administration will confront Netanyahu on its immediate interests but I do not see it making serious moves aimed at ending the occupation any time soon. In fact, one might suspect that the United States would like to avoid any change now. I imagine some people in Washington think that a weak Palestinian state will just be another front to defend against the forces of jihad — and who needs that right now?
3. Netanyahu is reconnecting with his base. Bibi leads the weakest coalition he has ever had, completely dependent on each one of his coalition partners. This is the reason Netanyahu has gone back to his political base in recent weeks — the settlers, the far-right and the ultra-Orthodox. The latter are receiving political favors from Bibi recently despite not even being in the coalition. Netanyahu is already thinking about the next government.
It has been said many times that with Netanyahu, these kinds of confrontations are a feature, not a bug. He may lose some votes in the center when he exchanges insults with Washington, but he is gaining on the right. Bibi is working to maintain the same coalition that brought him to power in 1996 — national-religious, ultra-Orthodox, Revisionists (the old Likud elite) and Jews of lower socio-economic background. These groups are far from an absolute majority in Israeli society, but they are enough to give Netanyahu slim victories: 50.5 percent vs. 49.5 percent against Peres in the direct elections of 1996; 65:55 in Knesset seats in 2009, and 61:59 in 2013. Never a landslide, but always enough.
The thing about Netanyahu’s coalitions is that they are made of forces less prone to outside pressure than the secular, upper-middle class that votes against him. With some of them — the settlers, for example — confrontations even work in Netanyahu’s favor. In the absence of a strong challenger from the Left, Bibi is betting that he can rally his base to another narrow win. He may be right.
4. Netanyahu’s opponents are also using the showdown with Washington to their advantage. Finance Minister Yair Lapid refused today to discuss funding projects in the West Bank, stating that he doesn’t remember a government decision to destroy relations with Washington. Lapid might also be sensing imminent elections, although he would like to avoid them, given his disappointing showing in all the recent polls.
In this sense, it is interesting to note that Lapid could theoretically form a government without going to elections. In a recent post, political pundit Raviv Druker speculated about Avigdor Liberman, Tzipi Livni, Labor and Meretz joining Lapid, and together with the tiny Kadima (two seats), forming the necessary bloc of 61 Knesset members that could send Netanyahu home. This is not a very likely scenario, but I think that Netanyahu must be giving it some thought, leading him to shore up his own bloc with the Right.
But any alternative coalition will be as unstable as the current one, and I don’t see any Israeli leader making the necessary steps that could end the occupation. The political interests of an American and Israeli government collided this week, but the Palestinians are just a sideshow here; their right to freedom and dignity is yet to be recognized by any of the actors in this political drama.