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Obama And Netanyahu In Tests Of Leadership

U.S. President Barack Obama Got Too Far Ahead Of Pack & Suffered Consequences

Meanwhile Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Trying To Maintain Right-Wing Power Base While Trying To Co-ordinate With U.S. On Palestinian Peace Track

Will Netanyahu Present New Conciliatory Palestinian Proposal At Meeting With U.S. Vice- President Joe Biden?

Barack Obama | Benyamin Netanyahu

 The Israeli-Palestinian peace effort is still side-tracked after Israel' ten month moratorium on settlement building expired on Sept.26th. After refusing to conduct talks with Israel during the freeze, Pa;estinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas now demands the moratorium be further extended as a condition for returning to the table. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said he would stick to his ten month commitment, the Obama administration has urged Israel to extend the moratorium and the issue is likely to be at the top of the agenda when Netanyahu meets with Vice-President Joe Biden when they meet in the U.S. IsraCast analyst David Essing assesses the impact of President Barack Obama's defeat in the U.S. mid-term elections and some of the implications for Prime Minister Netanyahu. 

 U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are both grappling with a fundamental issue - the leader's role in a democratic society. Obama and his Democratic party have just been clobbered in the U.S. mid-term elections, while Netanyahu is still walking a tight-rope between American pressure for concessions to the Palestinians and securing his power base among Israeli Right-wingers. On entering the White House, Obama threw caution to the wind; he had seen the light and, like the biblical Moses, was the chosen leader destined to lead his people to the Promised Land of greater social equality. Nor was he deterred from his messianic mission by the pressing need to repair the collapsing economic system that had gone haywire under the Republicans' unbridled capitalism.

Obama would have done better if he had taken a page out of one of his illustrious Democratic predecessors, Franklin D. Roosevelt at the outset of World War II. British historian Ian Kershaw in his book 'Fateful Choices' described how Roosevelt was convinced the U.S. would have to confront Nazi Germany but also realized that he could not overturn the 80% of U.S. public opinion that supported isolationism and opposed getting embroiled again in another European bloodbath. So Roosevelt bowed to public opinion and chose to support British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with lend-lease etc., but even his role as a non-interventionist aroused the ire of the isolationists. Roosevelt had to bide his time until conditions changed which they did after Japan's devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt realized something that Obama did not - if a democratic leader gets too far out in front of the pack, no matter how convinced he is in the justice of his cause, he may lose the pack. In Obama's case, he failed to understand there was a limit on the desire for change that had swept him into the White House. Obama now says the problem was that he was so busy with getting things done that he did not spend enough effort explaining his policies to the public. 

Benyamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the Israeli context, Obama's 'go for broke' approach recalls Prime Minister Ehud Barak's 'all or nothing gambit' at Camp David 2000 with Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton. Barak, with Clinton's blessing, staked all his chips on a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinian leader. In that case, Arafat was not ready for peace; he simply walked away from the table and flew home to launch the Second Intifada. Subsequently, Barak had to face an angry Israeli public that included part of his Left-wing power base. He was blamed him for going too far, too fast, 'giving away the kitchen-sink' while all he had to show for it was a bloody wave of Palestinian terrorism. Both Barak and Obama were blinded by their own visions and ignored the underlying reality. Obama will get a second time at the plate before the Presidential election in another two years - the way things are going it is doubtful if the Labor Party leader will get a second chance in the Prime Minister's office.

What can be said about Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu? Where has the Likud leader positioned himself in the choice between setting bold national goals in the face of changing circumstances or sticking to the platform that got him elected to office. Netanyahu appears to be wrestling with this fateful choice. Three Left-wing heavyweights Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and now Yitzak Herzog, the young Laborite who is challenging Barak for party leadership, have all declared they believe Netanyahu when he says he is ready for the 'painful concessions' necessary to make peace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. However, key Likud cabinet ministers such as Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Begin and Silvan Shalom contend that Netanyahu will honor his pledge to start rebuilding seriously in Judea & Samaria and doubt the PM's commitment to the two-state solution.

The settlers are a little worried - they are running paid ads in newspapers quoting the Prime Minister's promises to build again, as if Netanyahu needs reminding. Right-wingers are declaring: 'We elected Netanyahu and he must do our bidding!' There is a third course of action for an elected leader, the one coined by former PM Arik Sharon - 'What a prime minister sees after taking office is not the same as what he sees before being elected'. Sharon raised this justification after being hauled over the coals by the Right-wing for bowing to President George Bush's Roadmap for a two-state solution. However Sharon as did Yitzak Rabin stipulated that the reality of Israel's security will always be paramount in Palestinian peace-making. The majority of Israelis believed them as evidenced by their election victories. For his part, Netanyahu defied the Right-wing and his own Likud party by enforcing the ten month moratorium on settlement building that expired on Sept.26th. He opted for the move in order to placate the Obama administration after the Israeli government's building gaffe in eastern Jerusalem during the visit by Vice- President Joe Biden. The only reason Netanyahu was able to push through such an abhorrent step was his promise to send the bulldozers back in after the freeze expired. The PM had to reject American and Palestinian demands that he extend the moratorium if he was to save face with his domestic power base. The Arab League has given one month to find a solution and meanwhile Israel has refrained from wide scale building on the West Bank. So what happens now? If Peres, Barak and Herzog are right Netanyahu may possibly come up with a 'constructive ambiguity' when he sees Vice-President Joe Biden again, this time in the U.S. If so, Netanyahu will be declaring as did the late Yitzak Rabin: 'I'm leader and I'll do the navigating!' Otherwise, Netanyahu will be opting for: 'I'm their leader, so I have to do what my supporters want'.

The fact that Obama has stuck to his position, articulated in his Cairo address, that the 'settlements must stop' appears to leaves little room for Netanyahu to maneuver. But the question now being asked in Jerusalem is whether the battered Obama, about to be embroiled in a battle royal with a Republican majority in the House over economic policy will have the inclination to risk more of his political capital in the Middle East. Channel one TV has reported that Obama might replace envoy George Mitchell with old hands Martin Indyk or Dennis Ross. However, many Israeli pundits have said Obama will be preoccupied with economic issues at home, Two years ago during the presidential race they said the same thing and were proven wrong. 

On the other hand, the grim IDF intelligence briefing by Gen. Amos Yadlin accentuated the reality of security threats to the Jewish state posed by a potential war on several fronts by multiple enemies. This reality was obviously made clear to the Prime Minister some time ago and undoubtedly stresses, as recently stated by President Peres, Israel's need to assist the U.S. in building the coalition against Iran by advancing on the Palestinian peace track.

David Essing

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