x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Israel backed into a corner by Netanyahu's bumbling

Mr Sharon remains alive, in a vegetative state, on a life-support machine. And he left the peace process in pretty much the same state.

The onset of the Palestinian suicide terror campaign in the spring of 2001 gave the then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon the perfect pretext to kill off the Oslo peace process, against which he had campaigned for the best part of a decade. Few remember that despite the stroke that left him in a coma four years ago, Mr Sharon remains alive, in a vegetative state, on a life-support machine. And he left the peace process in pretty much the same state, by using western revulsion at the carnage in Israeli restaurants and town squares to win US and European acquiescence for walking away from any obligation to achieve a political settlement with the Palestinians.

@body arnhem:Viewed cynically, Friday's skirmish in Gaza that left two Israeli soldiers and at least two Palestinians dead could present today's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a welcome opportunity to change the subject at the end of a hellish week. The Israelis now face the decision whether to escalate the confrontation with Hamas, although that's a risky option: Israel's slide from the unassailable support it enjoyed at the height of Mr Sharon's tenure began with last year's military operation in Gaza which killed 1,300 Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu would certainly like to divert attention from his ongoing diplomatic clash with Israel's most important ally, the United States. His week began well enough when he was greeted like a rock star at the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC last Monday and on a visit to Capitol Hill the following day, despite publicly reiterating his defiance of the Obama administration's demand that Israel stop building new settlements in East Jerusalem. But when he arrived at the White House on Tuesday night, ushered in through the proverbial back door with none of the trappings of diplomatic protocol, Mr Netanyahu was given short shrift for his explanations why he couldn't do what Barack Obama was asking of him in Jerusalem and the greater peace process.

Israeli media reports were filled with humiliating details of Mr Netanyahu being treated like a leper at the White House - at one point, Mr Obama reportedly left the Israelis to talk among themselves and went to have dinner with his family. After two days of huddling, Mr Netanyahu's people offered the Americans nothing they could accept, and the prime minister returned to Israel "disgraced, isolated and altogether weaker", wrote Aluf Benn in Haaretz.

Mr Netanyahu may have calculated that his support on Capitol Hill would force Mr Obama to back down, but the administration appears to have recognised that if there were to be any hope of reviving the peace process - a goal recently identified by the US military as essential to American interests in the region - it was time to draw a line in the sand with the Israelis. It is widely acknowledged that a two-state solution would be based largely on Israel's 1967 borders, and would involve occupied East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. Expanding Israel's grip on East Jerusalem, therefore, is taken by the Arab world as a clear sign of Israeli bad faith.

While Mr Netanyahu is often sympathetically portrayed as hamstrung by right-wing coalition partners, the reality is that the prime minister has actually chosen to ally with the anti-peace process parties of the right. The centrist Kadima party offers a more than viable coalition alternative if Mr Netanyahu were willing to implement a complete settlement freeze and move quickly to negotiate the two-state solution.

Last year, when the prime minister for the first time publicly supported a two-state solution in response to US pressure, his father went on TV to reassure shocked Likudniks. "He does not support it," said Ben Zion Netanyahu. "He supports such conditions that they [the Palestinians] will never accept it. That's what I heard from him." Mr Netanyahu Sr's view was reinforced by Israel's vice premier, Moshe Yaalon, in an interview with Yediot Ahronot published on Friday when he explained that the prime minister's statement on a two-state solution, and his acceptance of a limited slowdown in settlement construction outside of Jerusalem, was simply "a diplomatic manoeuvre" aimed at placating the Americans and Europeans. "And I say so out of knowledge," he said. "Nobody [in the inner cabinet] thinks that we can reach an agreement with the Palestinians."

But Mr Netanyahu's hard line may be clarifying the reality for Washington that if the peace process is optional for the Israelis, it'll never happen. Israel's electorate is unlikely in the foreseeable future to vote in a government willing to implement a two-state solution unless Israelis understand that American backing depends on it. The Washington debacle was followed by a second blow, as Britain expelled a senior diplomat - allegedly the Mossad station chief in London - as punishment for the use of cloned British passports in the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai. The Israelis are learning to their consternation that western allies are not prepared to sanction Israeli behaviour that puts their own interests at risk.

On Friday, Mr Sharon's top aide, Dov Weissglass, offered a blistering critique of Mr Netanyahu's handling of the Americans. The prime minister had failed to read the shifts in Washington, said Mr Weissglass. And by ignoring all understandings with the US reached by his predecessors on dealing with the Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu had managed to undo Mr Sharon's achievement in walking the Americans back on the terms of the peace process.

But then, back in the days when the two men vied for leadership of Likud, Mr Sharon's people made no secret of the fact that they saw "Bibi" as something of a schlemiel - the Yiddish word for a habitual bungler. Right now, Mr Obama appears content to concentrate the Israeli mind on the idea that the peace process is not optional. Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at www.tonykaron.com