Netanyahu’s greatest fear: Linkage

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on November 8, 2013 (Pool/AFP/File, Debbie Hill)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on November 8, 2013 (Pool/AFP/File, Debbie Hill)

Before heading to Geneva this weekend for the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, John Kerry was in Israel, where he gave a lengthy interview on Channel 2, harshly criticizing Israel’s settlement expansion policy. According to Haaretz, that was the reason Kerry traveled to Israel “to try and deal with the crisis that resulted in Israel’s announcement of settlement expansion.”

The next day Kerry met with Netanyahu about Iran. The meeting, which went on for two hours, was described by multiple outlets as tense, and a scheduled joint appearance with the media was canceled. Haaretz reported Netanyahu exhibited “disturbing outbursts“.  The Washington Post reported Netanyahu left “little doubt that the fate of the Palestinian talks is linked to the outcome of negotiations with Iran.”

The “ferocity of Netanyahu’s rage” was surely compounded by Kerry’s warning about settlement expansion, and a third intifada if Israel continues to colonize Palestinian territory, and the secretary of state’s impatience with those, e.g. Israel, using “fear tactics” to stop the P5+1 Iran negotiations. Abe Foxman said Kerry’s criticism was outrageous; “It is chutzpah to lecture Israel about the risks of peace and war.” To heed Kerry would mean that Netanyahu would succumb to Obama’s priorities over those of his own– an ongoing competition that’s marked the relationship between the officials since day one.

But this competing narrative has been absent for the most part from all mainstream reports.

The battle between US priorities and Israeli ones shows up in Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest Op-ed: Hagel falls into the Israel-Palestinian trap. Goldberg is regarded as the go-to American guy for the Israeli government, the reporter who tells Americans what they’re really thinking. Some said he carried water for that government when he published their warning three years ago about an imminent Israeli attack on Iran.

The interview with Hagel dealt with the idea of “linkage”– of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict as one of America’s main strategic interests.

Goldberg:  “What does the Barack Obama administration believe the United States’s overarching strategic interests to be?……simply describe the main American strategic interests in the region”.

Hagel’s answer: Israel-Palestine.

“The main strategic interests have not changed, I don’t think, from administration to administration. A peace settlement with the Israelis and the Palestinians, which has been Bush policy, Clinton policy, going back to Bush 41.  . . . So, a peace settlement, and working with our allies to bring some security and stability to the region, to continue to develop their respect for human dignity, recognizing that the ethnic and religious currents are running against those currents. You can’t impose, you can’t occupy, you have to work with the people there. It takes time.”

Goldberg followed up by asking if combating Iranian influence was part of this same strategy. Hagel says Yes, but went right back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This didn’t please Goldberg. It showed an erroneous article of faith in D.C., the “linkage” theory:

Hagel, like much of Washington’s foreign policy elite, still seems enamored of the idea that reaching a final agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians would help solve many of the Middle East’s other problems. I wasn’t that surprised, in fact, that he listed this item first in his description of America’s strategic challenges. Hagel is partial to a theory, known in shorthand as “linkage,” that is no longer operative in reality. The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is irrelevant to the great earthquakes of recent Middle East history….. But it is still an article of faith among very smart people that a peace treaty would lead to broad tranquility.

So the Israel-Palestine conflict is “irrelevant to the great earthquakes of recent Middle East history.” There is no connection between Israeli actions and American difficulties in the Middle East. And the same day, according to the Washington Post, Netanyahu left little doubt the “fate” of the negotiations with Palestinians was “linked” to the deal with Iran.  Haaretz said that, according to his advisers, Netanyahu “was feeling the American knife imbedding in his back.”

Why is this important? Because it’s starting to sink in publicly how Israel has been using Iran to divert attention from Israel’s never ending expansion. Because Netanyahu wants to use Palestine as a negotiating tool: his joker card in the high stakes game of ‘forget about settlement expansion and have another Middle East war.’ That’s his idea of linkage.

And if the situation is reversed, if the US were to appear unhappy with Israel’s progress over negotiations with Palestinians—would our government dare to hold linkage over Israel’s head? Ever—or right now? Or is any “linkage” just a one way street? This power struggle seems to be going on now behind closed doors. Which may be why Netanyahu tweeted this photo of his meeting with Kerry on Nov. 6:

Netanyahu and Kerry in Jerusalem this morning

Netanyahu and Kerry in Jerusalem

After Obama won a second term he jump-started pressure for a resolution of the conflict. And I find it not so coincidental that the nine-month period of talking, during which P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas agreed not to go to the UN, are unfolding in complete synchronization with the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.

I believe we’re seeing a US government effort to link the two conflicts in the public mind– with the possibility that an interim deal with Iran, which seems to be what they’re negotiating over in Geneva, coincides with the end of the time frame we agreed on with Palestinians, regarding a “halt of unilateral Palestinian actions at the United Nations during the nine months of negotiating.” That time frame ends in April. Then what happens? Do we see the Palestinians at the UN and the International Criminal Court, without pushback from US, even as Iran is on a back burner for another two or three months?

If you think Netanyahu is p.o.’d now, imagine that time crunch. And Obama still has 3 more years in office.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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