U.S.-Israel relations: Netanyahu’s self-made problem

Netanyahu’s habit of being economical with the truth was never more evident than in the building-freeze “deal”.

Binyamin Netanyahu has a, shall we say, complex relationship with reality.

For starters, he is given to bouts of often embarrassing fantasy, trying to attach himself to famous events. In the past, speaking to supporters of the assassinated racist Rehav’am Zeevi, he said Zeevi was one of the most important ministers of his cabinet, who used to give him private advice; problem was, Zeevi never served in Netanyahu’s cabinet. In a bizarre outburst in 2005, he claimed that Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, asked him to become Finance Minister, but that he rejected the offer out of patriotic feelings. The likelihood of such an offer actually being made is vanishingly small.

In one of his weirdest fantasies, Netanyahu placed himself in Ariel Sharon’s command APC during the Yom Kippur War. Everyone involved agrees (Hebrew) no such thing has ever happened, and the timing of the fantasy – Sharon’s coma – seems to indicate Netanyahu was trying to simply bask in Sharon’s reflected glory. A few weeks back, during the miners’ crisis in Chile, Netanyahu’s bureau published an official communiqué, saying that Netanyahu predicted the disaster in his 1987 book on terrorism. Needless to say, he did nothing of the sort. He merely wrote that a mining disaster “may capture the attention of a whole nation for a long while”. Which, even in 1987, did not require occult powers of prophecy.

Aside from flights of fancy, the man is given to quick and facile lies. Veteran parliamentarian Yossi Sarid once remarked how, when arguing about the pronunciation of an Hebrew word, Netanyahu convinced him he was right because, Netanyahu said, he happened to look the word up in the dictionary the day before. Returning home, Sarid took out his dictionary. Needless to say, Netanyahu was lying.

So, when are looking at the strange events of the past two weeks, it would be helpful to keep in mind this side of Netanyahu. As everyone would recall, Netanyahu came home in triumph, saying that after a meeting of seven hours with Secretary of State Clinton, he managed to get the following deal. He would arrange for a settlement freeze for three months, in return for which he will receive the following:

A. The US would use its veto to prevent anti-Israeli resolutions in the UN.
B. Israel would receive 20 F-35 fighters as a present from the US.
C. The Americans will not insist on freezing building in Jerusalem, and will not ask for any more freezing.

Most Israeli commentators said at the time that this deal is too good to be true. And they were right. That was possibly the biggest whopper Netanyahu sold the Israeli public, which is saying something. I mean, we’re talking about a man who persuaded a large segment of the population whom he drove into penury that he was an excellent finance minister.

Soon after Netanyahu landed, the package started to unravel. That epic 7-hours meeting with Clinton, reminiscent of those endless diplomatic meetings with Assad senior? Didn’t happen. They took a long break, long enough for Netanyahu to take his son to an Italian restaurant. Suspiciously enough, Netanyahu demanded there would be no protocol of the meeting.

Those F-35s fighters? Israel will get them, but it’ll have to pay for ‘em. That veto? Israel always had it. And anyway, there’s no veto in the General Assembly, only in the Security Council. As for the status of Jerusalem, a “senior American official” said bluntly that when Netanyahu says the US agreed that East Jerusalem would be exempt from building freeze, he “was not telling the truth” (Hebrew).

So, to sum up, what Netanyahu managed to do during his meeting with Clinton was take things which Israel used to take for granted – fighter planes, the American veto – and make them conditional on a settlement freeze. We now learn his expert maneuvers managed to place a long term strategic agreement with the US at risk. He then dressed up this diplomatic fiasco as a great victory, knowing the Israeli media will, as usual, drink unquestioningly from his lap.

For the past two weeks, Netanyahu has been trying to get the Administration to provide him with those assurances in writings. If what he said was true, this should have taken minutes. Since he lied, it isn’t. His new outburst against the Palestinians, in the Western Wall affair, should be seen in this light: an attempt to find an excuse to extricate himself from a blind alley into which he drove himself.

But, even assuming he does, the Obama administration will be well within its right to say that Netanyahu has forfeited US military aid and the veto. Advantage: Obama.