x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

As long as the right controls Israel, ties with the US suffer

The most egregious instance came last week, when Israel's defence minister launched an unprecedented attack on Mr Kerry, calling him "obsessive and maniac"

Things have come to a strange state of affairs when Washington regards Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s far-right foreign minister, as the voice of moderation in the Israeli cabinet. While Mr Lieberman has called the soon-to-be-unveiled US peace plan the best deal Israel is ever likely to get, and has repeatedly flattered its chief author, US secretary of state John Kerry, other ministers have preferred to pull off the diplomatic gloves.

The most egregious instance came last week when Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defence minister, launched an unprecedented and personal attack on the man entrusted by president Barack Obama to oversee the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. In a private briefing, disclosed last week by the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper, Mr Yaalon called Mr Kerry “obsessive and messianic”, denounced his peace plan as “not worth the paper it was written on”, and wished he would win “the Nobel Prize and leave us alone”.

Mr Yaalon could hardly claim he was caught in an unguarded moment. According to reports, he has been making equally disparaging comments for weeks.

On this occasion, however, Washington’s response ratcheted up several notches. US officials furiously denounced the comments as “offensive” and demanded that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly slap down his minister.

But what might have been expected – a fulsome, even grovelling apology – failed to materialise. It was only on Mr Yaalon’s third attempt, and after a long meeting with Mr Netanyahu, that he produced a limp statement of regret “if the secretary was offended”.

Also showing no signs of remorse, Mr Netanyahu suggested that disagreements with the US were always “substantive and not personal”.

With the diplomatic crisis still simmering, Mr Yaalon returned to the theme late last week, telling an audience in Jerusalem that the US and Europe had a “misguided understanding” of the Middle East and denouncing a “Western preoccupation with the Palestinian issue”.

Not surprisingly, the Palestinian leadership is celebrating the latest evidence of Israel’s increasingly self-destructive behaviour. Such outbursts against Mr Kerry will make it much harder for Washington to claim the Palestinians are to blame if, or more likely when, the talks collapse.

The Israeli government is not only hurling insults; it is working visibly to thwart a peace process on which the Obama administration had staked its credibility.

Mr Netanyahu has kept moving the talks’ goalposts. He declared for the first time this month that two small and highly provocative settlements in the West Bank, Beit El and a garrisoned community embedded in Hebron, a large Palestinian city, could not be given up because of their religious importance.

That is on top of recent announcements of a glut of settlement building and ministerial backing for the annexation of the vast expanse of the Jordan Valley.

Even Mr Obama appears finally to be losing hope, telling the New Yorker this week that chances of a breakthrough were “less than 50-50”.

While Mr Netanyahu may act as though he is doing the White House a favour by negotiating, he should be in no doubt of his dependence on US goodwill. He received a timely reminder last week when Congress voted through a $3.1 billion (Dh11.3b) aid package for Israel in 2014, despite the severe troubles facing the US economy.

In part, Mr Netanyahu’s arrogance appears to reflect his personality – and a culture of impractical isolationism he has long nurtured on the Israeli right.

With Washington pushing firmly for engagement with the Palestinians, this has started to rebound on him. Israeli analysts have noted his growing insecurity, fearful that any concessions he makes will weaken him in the eyes of the right and encourage challengers to the throne. That explains some of his indulgence of Mr Yaalon.

But his ideological worldview also accords with his defence minister’s.

It is hardly the first time Mr Netanyahu has picked a fight over the peace process. Early in Mr Obama’s first term, he waged a war of attrition over US demands for a settlement freeze – and won. He even dared publicly to back the president’s republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 elections.

In unusually frank references to Mr Netanyahu in his new memoir, Robert Gates, Mr Obama’s defence secretary until 2011, recalls only disdain for the Israeli prime minister, even admitting that at one point he tried to get him barred from the White House. Mr Gates criticises his “glibness”, “arrogance” and “outlandish ambition”.

But the problem runs deeper still. Just too much bad blood has built up between these two allies during Mr Netanyahu’s term. The feud is not only over Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians but on the related matter of US handling of what Israel considers its strategic environment after the Arab Spring.

Mr Netanyahu is angry that the US has not taken a more decisive hand in shoring up Israeli interests in Egypt and Syria, and near-apoplectic at what he sees as a cave-in on Iran and what Israel claims is its ambition to build a nuclear weapon.

He appears ready to repay the White House in kind, rousing pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington to retaliate through initiatives such as the bill currently in Congress threatening to step up sanctions against Iran, subverting Obama’s diplomatic efforts.

Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator, recently described the Israeli-US relationship as “too big to fail”. For the moment, that is undoubtedly true.

But in his New Yorker interview, Mr Obama warns: “The old order, the old equilibrium, is no longer tenable. The question then becomes: What’s next?”

Israel is wedded to the old order. If the regional strategies of Israel and the US continue to diverge, as seems likely as long as the far-right dominates Israeli politics, the cracks between them are only going to grow deeper and wider.

Jonathan Cook is an independent journalist based in Nazareth