Rassegna Stampa Elezioni Israeliane 2009

Monitoraggio attraverso i media internazionali delle elezioni in Israele del Febbraio 2009

Netanyahu, America and the cow in the house

Posted by valecardia su 5 aprile, 2009


To understand how Israel’s new Netanyahu government will handle relations with its neighbours, and a US administration with which it is clearly at odds, it is worth recounting an old Hasidic Jewish folktale

A man’s wife nags him relentlessly that their home is too small. A poor man, he can afford nothing larger, so he asks the advice of his rabbi. “Bring your chickens into the house,” the rabbi advises, which the man duly goes home and does. Naturally his wife’s anger escalates, which he reports back to the rabbi the following day. “Now bring in your goat,” the sage advises – a course of action with predictable consequences, but when the man returns the rabbi orders him to bring a cow into the house the next night. The man returns red-eyed and frantic after a sleepless night. “Rabbi, what can I do, my wife is threatening to leave.” To which the rabbi replies: “Now, take out the cow.”

The basic principle is simple: when you have a problem you can’t solve, create a bigger one. Plainly, Benjamin Netanyahu has a problem he can’t solve: Israel is highly dependent on US support, but America now has an administration determined to move quickly to end the conflict that has raged since Israel’s creation in 1948 by creating a viable, independent Palestinian state. And Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that he cannot accept such an outcome because he deems sovereign independence for the Palestinians to be an intolerable threat to Israel’s security.

So, how can Bibi change the subject? Well, for starters, he can appoint a foreign minister so bellicose, racist and downright scary that it allows Netanyahu himself to play the good cop. The former Moldovan nightclub bouncer and current West Bank settler Avigdor Lieberman caused a diplomatic flurry last week when he renounced any undertakings given by the last Israeli government under the Bush administration’s Annapolis process, saying that Israel was bound only by the 2002 road map – which as far as Israel is concerned requires the dismantling of Hamas before it requires anything much of the Israelis.

Mr Lieberman is a PR disaster for a country with reputation in the international community that is already far from stellar: witness the UN appointment last week of the South African judge Richard Goldstone, who investigated abuses by the apartheid regime and by the former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, to investigate allegations of war crimes in Gaza. Mr Lieberman spent most of his second and third days in office with Israeli policemen interviewing him in connection with allegations of bribery and money laundering, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that his tenure as a bogeyman could turn out to be somewhat brief – but as long as he is in the job, he allows Mr Netanyahu to present himself as a more sober alternative: the removal of the goat, if you like.

The second distraction will be the “Syria track”. While Mr Netanyahu has long rejected demands to hand back the Golan Heights, he will spend plenty of time sending out feelers and engaging in some form of “process” with the Syrians. We can’t have peace with the Palestinians, he’ll tell Washington, but there’s always the “Syrian track”: not that it’ll ever reach its destination.

But playing good cop to Lieberman’s scary guy, and flirting with Syria, only go so far. Mr Netanyahu needs something a lot more substantial to deflect pressure to settle accounts with the Palestinians. His “cow in the house” will be Iran.

“The Obama presidency has two great missions,” Mr Netanyahu told an interviewer last week. “Fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.” And cautioned that if Mr Obama fails to reverse Iran’s nuclear progress – as one of his aides put it, in a timeframe measured in months – Israel will feel obliged to take military action.

Curiously, the secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s top Iran adviser, the pro-Israel hawk Dennis Ross, suggests in his new book that one way to scare reluctant Europeans into harsher sanctions against Iran is to have the Israelis make clear that they will launch a potentially catastrophic war if nobody else stops Iran. It seems that Mr Netanyahu has decided to use this tactic with the new US administration too.

Of course, the US military is having none of it, pouring cold water on alarmist Israeli assessments of the Iranian “nuclear peril” and making clear that Tehran has not even taken the decision to build atomic weapons. The Israelis cannot attack Iran without a US green light, for reasons that range from the permission their warplanes would need to overfly Iraq to the fact that everyone knows the US will suffer the bulk of any Iranian retaliation. But threatening to start a war is certainly a way of getting your favourite issue to the top of the agenda.

When the new Israeli prime minister arrives in Washington next month for talks with President Obama, he will insist that Iran is the issue that trumps all others. Mr Obama is prioritising Iran, of course, through a diplomatic process which he will no doubt explain, but he has made clear that he will also press Mr Netanyahu on moving forward on peace with the Palestinians.

When Mrs Clinton visited Israel last month, Israeli leaders made clear to her that they believed Mr Obama’s diplomacy could be given only a brief window, and should be accompanied by harsh threats. Mr Netanyahu will deliver the same message, underscored by the tacit threat that Israel will take military action if it’s not satisfied with the efforts of others. Threaten a crisis, and you shape the agenda; bring a cow into the house, and it’ll be hard for anyone to discuss anything else.

Mr Netanyahu’s problem, however, is that the Obama administration recognises the absence of a Palestinian state as a growing crisis with a limited timeframe for finding a solution. Also, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are unlikely to remain passive, and are likely to step up their resistance to the chokehold of occupation. Israel, in 2009, is unlikely to have a monopoly on defining the region’s priorities.

Tony Karon

Last Updated: April 05. 2009 8:30AM UAE / April 5. 2009 4:30AM GMT

Tony Karon is a New York-based editor who blogs at Rootless Cosmopolitan: http://www.tonykaron.com

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