On March 2, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to leave for the United States for his traditional standing ovation performance before the delegates of AIPAC's annual conference. But he is also headed for a more daunting mission, to wit, his seasonal meeting with a much less sympathetic partner — US President Barack Obama. We will touch on this crucial meeting later, but first there is a story relating to the AIPAC conference. While the idea is still embryonic and has yet to become operative, it is nevertheless out there. The overtures are under way, donors are lining up and plans are being spun: America's right-wing Jewry is talking about establishing its own AIPAC, a counterweight to J Street. The temporary name is ZPAC, a jest of sorts, something like, "If they are A, then we are Z."
A right-wing Jewish attorney from Florida by the name of Joseph Sabag is said to be at the front of this nascent venture, yet behind this front are much more prominent names, some of whom are past — and maybe also present — donors to Netanyahu. This is an interesting idea, which, if materialized, could rock American Jewry to an extent.
Indeed, most American Jews, roughly 70%, identify with the Democratic Party. They will vote for the Democratic presidential nominee even if he is not a staunch supporter of Israel. Obama would be a case in point. The thing is that there is also a minority, which is no less opinionated and vocal, perhaps even passionate. Not all Jews who support Republicans are right wing (in the context of Israel's right wing), and by the same token not all right-wing Jews in the United States are Republicans. What is certain, however, is that American Jewry also consists of a robust and zealous backbone of passionate right-wing ideologues whose members have been traditionally opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. They espouse views that do not conform to Netanyahu's current policy of a two-state solution, which he adopted in his 2009 Bar-Ilan address. These are well-off people associated with Israel's right wing and its variants over the years. People like late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (in his previous incarnation) and of course Netanyahu, who drew behind them a flock of admirers that reached deep into the pockets to extend their help.
Today, these Jews feel isolated. Netanyahu's path — at least the stated one — is not their own. J Street, they say in closed forums, supports the idea of a "state of all its citizens." From their standpoint, J Street is not a Zionist organization (an assumption that I factually dispute). According to their view, AIPAC is the government's mouthpiece; it will invariably support any Israeli government. In this respect, it is like the United Nations — it's neutral. What we have here is a situation whereby the left has a growing lobby in Washington (J Street). The Israeli government also has a huge lobby in Washington (AIPAC), and only we, they say — the real right wing that has not changed its positions the way Netanyahu has over the years — have no representation in Washington. We don't have an orderly mechanism to apply pressure on President Obama in such a sensitive situation as the one we are in right now. There is no organized Jewish lobby that will make it clear to Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry that the unrelenting pressure on Israel will have an adverse effect on Democrats in the next elections. There is no one to oversee this struggle and bring the authentic voice of Israel's right wing to American legislators, media and public.
If ZPAC is in fact established, it will herald a dramatic event, giving Israel three large lobbies in the United States. Even the old-hat joke about two Jews locked up in the same room yet having three opinions is nothing compared to this reality which eclipses any imagination. On one hand having three lobbies is very nice. On the other hand, quantity is not always a sure stamp of quality. Instead of coming up with one uniform Israeli position and rallying efforts around it, the average American legislator will find himself facing a host of lobbyists and activists pulling him in three different directions, all for the good of the same country. I would not venture to estimate what such a cacophony would produce in terms of pro-Israeli benefits, but it will surely give you a big headache.
Among the things Netanyahu will be pondering en route to D.C., one will surely be his partner and rival Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. A short while earlier, the prime minister could have read here in Al-Monitor (or heard it on Israel's Channel 10 television network) the scoop about Liberman's decision: Despite the temptation and the thought-out plan presented to him how to take over the Likud Party, he has decided to run separately in the next elections. The Yisrael Beitenu Party has been resuscitated.
Encouraged by the reversal of his nosedive in recent polls, Liberman has made up his mind to end his affair with the Likud Party. In the interim, he releases an interesting ultimatum. If the Governability Law, which is expected to introduce changes into Israel's electoral system, is not endorsed by the Knesset on March 10, "this will be the end." In other words, he is disbanding the government.
Now Netanyahu can spend the entire flight contending with this new reality. The problem is that equally complex problems await him in Washington.
Netanyahu will meet with Obama on March 3. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will arrive to D.C. on March 17, and the negotiations with the Palestinians are on the agenda. Obama knows that unless he scores a goal now, he never will. He is already preoccupied with the mid-term elections, after which he will start limping toward the end of his presidency. This is the last chance for a final push, and that's exactly what will happen.
Obama's tougher job awaits with Abbas, who's now the side holding up the publication of the document. US Special Envoy Martin Indyk's teams have managed to come up with some agreements (albeit vague ones) with the Israeli side. Netanyahu has taken a clear strategic decision to the effect that he will not be the one to derail Kerry's endeavors. He will roll with Kerry even at the prospect of paying a political price. The problem is that the Palestinians are throwing Kerry's proposals out the window. They are unwilling to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. They insist on the right of return while refusing to be jostled into the outskirts of Jerusalem. Worst of all, they claim that they have no positive incentive and that they get nothing in return. They have no carrots with which to face their own people. On the contrary, they say. Israel continues to build in the territories as if nothing is going on.
In his own voice and resorting to creative visual illustrations, Obama will make it clear to Netanyahu and Abbas what failure of the negotiations would mean. He would warn them of what could unfold if no document were presented, if the deadline were not extended and if no agreement were reached on the basis of which the talks could proceed. The price would be stiff. Both sides have already heard and received an itemized bill, but this time the president will do it in his own voice, in the Oval Office, maybe also tete-a-tete. This is going to be serious. Being the easier customer, Netanyahu will be required to make gestures allowing Abbas to demonstrate greater flexibility. What kind of gestures? Agreeing, for example, to release the 16 Arab-Israeli prisoners who are expected to be freed in the framework of the current deal, to which the Israeli government (and the Israeli public as well) is strongly opposed. Netanyahu will reply to Obama by the same token: Why is it so easy for you to demand of us to release heinous murderers yet you find it so hard to release Jonathan Pollard who will soon have served 30 years in prison under harsh conditions, especially in light of the fact that he never murdered anyone? I do not rule out an agreement of some sort between Netanyahu and Obama on Pollard's release in the foreseeable future.
Netanyahu will try to shift the conversation with Obama to his favorite topic — Iran. He craves to explain to Obama how dangerous the current situation is, how the sanctions regime is collapsing right before our eyes and how the Iranians continue to fool the world, trying to buy time. It is doubtful that Obama will satisfy Netanyahu in this regard. The American president is now focused on the diplomatic process. If he is focused, Netanyahu will have to focus as well.
Then it will be Abbas's turn. In this case, this is truly a dead-end. Obama is expected to use all the cards and levers at his disposal. It is questionable whether the president of the Palestinian Authority will be able to withstand the pressure. In addition to the prisoner issue, he is also expected to raise a demand for a construction freeze in the territories. Obama will whisper in his ears that Israel has already put a freeze on construction beyond the separation fence and that a token freeze in the rest of the areas could be squeezed out. This will be Abbas's moment. Will he spread his wings and soar, or will he prefer to stay in the warm, cozy nest of intransigence? What is depressing about all of this, is that even if he does soar, it is not to the sky or the horizon, but rather to the extension of the negotiation period en route to the next impasse.