JERUSALEM — On Wednesday night, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin entrusted the victorious Benjamin Netanyahu with the task of forming the next government of Israel. With the Israeli public still licking the wounds of an acrimonious election campaign, Rivlin expressed his hope that as the next prime minister, Netanyahu will work to “mend fences” in Israeli society.
Rivlin referred to Netanyahu’s remark, or rather warning, to his own complacent supporters during the campaign, that Israeli Arab voters were “bused” in masses to the ballots.
However, before Netanyahu mends fences at home, he urgently needs to rebuild bridges to the White House, which seem to have been destroyed recently. There was little love lost between him and President Obama to begin with, but Netanyahu’s confrontational speech in Congress on the Iranian deal and another remark he made during his campaign, in which he retracted his support of a Palestinian state, made things even worse. And when relations between the leaders of the two allies sink so low, no wonder that suddenly there are leaks to the Wall Street Journal about Israel allegedly spying on the United States.
These kinds of things are usually smoothed out below the media’s radar. Not so when there is bad blood between Washington and Jerusalem.
Though not one of this prime minister’s biggest fans, I, like many Israelis, still share his concerns about the Iranian deal. The fact that even the French, not necessarily known for their resilience against aggression, are raising objections of their own, seems to vindicate some of Netanyahu’s arguments.
The same with the issue of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu tried — not quite successfully — to assure the administration that he still stands by his 2009 speech, in which he endorsed a Palestinian state. It seems, however, that what he sticks to is not that speech, which he delivered reluctantly, but the book he wrote years ago, A Place Among the Nations, where he described the idea of a Palestinian state so close to the heart of Israel as a nightmare.
Again, his concerns are shared by many Israelis, who — in light of the turmoil in the Middle East — watch with anxiety the Palestinian unilateral moves in the United Nations, meant to force Israel’s hand, perhaps with Washington turning a blind eye.
Israelis, who can’t figure out what the American Middle East policy is anyway, still remember how in 2006 Washington coerced them into allowing Hamas to participate in the Palestinian elections. In return, what Israelis have received since are barrages of rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Do they really want the same to happen in the West Bank, even closer to home? On Election Day, they gave their answer by massively supporting Netanyahu. And while I don’t necessarily share their views, I can understand why they preferred a naysayer Netanyahu over what looks to them like a reckless American gamble on their future.
Netanyahu, then, in his discourse with America on Iran and the Palestinian state, has some valid points. The problem is that he managed to position himself — and Israel — as an obstacle to an American president, who, in his remaining 18 months in power, is trying to carve a legacy for himself.
With Congress obstructing him at home, foreign policy is President Obama’s only refuge, and there, with time running out, Benjamin Netanyahu keeps popping up with a stop sign. No need to be a fly on the wall in the Oval Office: President Obama is now venting his frustration publicly.
There is a way, though, by which Netanyahu could mend fences with the White House. Israel’s Sunni neighbors — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states — who fear Iran’s nuclear program no less than Israel, consider Netanyahu to be their best spokesman on the Iranian issue vis-à-vis Washington.
These are the very same countries that, back in 2002, placed on the table a proposal for a comprehensive, regional peace, which Israel, unfortunately, ignored.
By using that proposal as a means to generate a new, sounder peace process in the Middle East, Netanyahu could have offered President Obama a golden opportunity to preside over a regional peace conference, like the one President George H.W. Bush chaired in Madrid in 1991.
Surely, behind the conference’s closed doors, grateful Americans would have been willing to pay their concerned Arab allies with Iranian currency, much to the delight of a happy Netanyahu. That’s the way for an Israeli prime minister to promote his country's vital interests, while working with the American president, not against him.