x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'Downcast' Benjamin Netahyahu under increased pressure over Israel's poor image

Fast-moving recent developments in the region and strains with the US and Europe, notably with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, add to Israel's isolation.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is seeing his country suffer a faltering diplomatic and strategic standing.
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is seeing his country suffer a faltering diplomatic and strategic standing.

NAZARETH // Benjamin Netanyahu's advisers have conceded that the Israeli prime minister is more downcast than they have ever seen him. The reason, they say, is Israel's faltering diplomatic and strategic standing.

Mr Netanyahu's concern was evident at a recent cabinet meeting, when he was reported to have angrily pounded the table.

"We are in a very difficult international arena," he was quoted by the Haaretz newspaper as telling ministers who wanted to step up settlement building. "I suggest we all be cautious."

A global survey for the BBC published on Monday will have only reinforced that assessment: Israel has one of the worst public images of any country, with just 21 per cent seeing it in a positive light.

Mr Netanyahu may believe he has exhausted international goodwill, which could explain his change of tack on the peace process.

After refusing last year to continue a partial freeze on settlement building, a Palestinian prerequisite for peace talks, he is reportedly preparing to lay out an initiative for the phased creation of a Palestinian state. Such an about-turn reflects the fact that Israel is facing trouble on many fronts.

One reason is the region's rapidly deteriorating political and military environment.

As upheaval spreads across the Middle East, Israel is anxiously scouring the neighbourhood for potential allies after sacrificing its long-standing friendship with Turkey.

With Hosni Mubarak gone, Mr Netanyahu can probably no longer rely on Egypt for help in containing Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's nemesis in Lebanon, the Shiite militia Hizbollah, is stronger than ever. And given Arab popular sentiment, Jordan cannot afford to be seen aiding Israel.

Things are no better in the global arena. According to the Israeli media, Washington is blaming Mr Netanyahu for the recent collapse of peace talks with the Palestinians.

It is also holding him responsible for subsequent developments, particularly a Palestinian resolution presented to the UN Security Council last month condemning Israeli settlements. The White House was forced to veto the resolution.

The timing of the veto could not have been more embarrassing for the president, Barack Obama. He was forced to side publicly with Israel against the Palestinians at a time when the US desperately wants to calm tensions in the Middle East.

Over the weekend, reports suggested that the Israeli prime minister had been further warned by US officials that any peace plan he announces must be "dramatic".

Then, there are the prime minister's problems with Europe. Mr Netanyahu was apparently shaken by the response of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, when he called to chastise her for joining Britain and France in backing the Palestinian resolution at the UN. Instead of apologising, she reportedly berated him for his intransigence.

The loss of European support, combined with US anger, may signal difficulties ahead for Israel with the Quartet, the international group comprising the US, EU, Russia and the United Nations that oversees the peace process.

The Quartet's principals are due to meet next week. Mr Netanyahu's officials are said to be worried that, in the absence of progress, the Quartet may adopt an existing peace plan similar to the Arab League's long-standing proposal, based on Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

In addition, Israel's already strained relations with the Palestinian Authority are likely to deteriorate further in coming months.

The PA has been trying to shore up its legitimacy since the so-called Palestine Papers were leaked in January, revealing that its negotiators had agreed to large concessions. Its first step was the UN resolution denouncing the settlements.

More such moves are likely. Most ominous for Israel would be a PA decision to carry out its threat to declare statehood unilaterally at the United Nations in September.

In that vein, Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, said on Saturday that he expected that an independent Palestinian state would become a permanent member of the UN.

The other prospect facing the PA - collapse or being swept away by street protests - would be even more disastrous for Israel.

With the PA gone, Israel would be forced to directly reoccupy the West Bank at great cost and damage to its image. Palestinians could be expected to launch a civil rights campaign demanding full rights, including the vote, alongside Israelis.

It is doubtless this scenario that prompted Mr Netanyahu to say last week that sharing a single "binational state" with the Palestinians could be "disastrous for Israel".

Such warnings have been the stock-in-trade of the prime minister's political opponents on the left.

Mr Netanyahu reportedly intends to unveil his peace plan in Washington in May. But on Monday Ehud Barak, his defence minister, added to the pressure by warning that May was too late. "This is the time to take risks … to prevent international isolation," he told Israel Radio.

Some analysts don't believe that Mr Netanyahu has had a change of heart.

"At this point it's all spin designed to fend off pressures," Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, wrote for the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue website Bitterlemons. "The object of the exercise is to gain a day, or a week, or a month, before having to come up with some sort of new spin."

Indications are that Mr Netanyahu will propose a miserly interim formula for a demilitarised Palestinian state in temporary borders.

The Jerusalem Post reported that late last year Mr Netanyahu demanded that Israel hold on to 40 per cent of the West Bank for the foreseeable future.

That fits with a similar interim plan put forward by Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Netanyahu's far-right foreign minister.

Palestinians are insisting on a deal on permanent borders, saying Israel would use anything less as an opportunity to grab more land in the West Bank.

Herb Keinon, an analyst for the Jerusalem Post, observed that there was "little expectation" from Mr Netanyahu that the Palestinians would accept such a deal.

The government hoped instead, he said, that it would "pre-empt world recognition of a Palestinian state" inside the 1967 borders.