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Obama and Israel: It ain’t over till it’s over

Those close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fear that if Donald Trump wins the elections, President Barack Obama will use the time left before the end of his term to launch a diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  - RTSOTEX

In his meeting with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in New York Sept. 25, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to get out of her what he failed to extract from the serving president, Barack Obama. He got her to promise that she would oppose any attempt by “external forces” to force a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including any resolution by the United Nations Security Council.

That was the sole purpose of their meeting, at least as far as Netanyahu was concerned. His feelings about Clinton are well-known. He would do anything to make sure that she doesn’t get to the White House. Since it really isn’t up to him, however, the prime minister took advantage of this sensitive time, right before the first televised debated between Clinton and Donald Trump, to use the Democratic candidate to keep Obama in check, as Obama continues to debate about what to do about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before he leaves the White House.

Concern in Jerusalem grew considerably after Netanyahu’s most recent meeting with Obama Sept. 21 in New York. In what can only be considered unusual, the meeting did not include an intimate, closed-door session involving just the two leaders, as is customary in meetings of this sort. In interviews after the event, Netanyahu confirmed that the issue of a possible presidential initiative during Obama’s final weeks in office did not come up in their meeting.

The person most responsible for increasing Israeli paranoia is long-serving US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. In an interview with Channel 10 after the meeting, he tossed around rather explicit hints about the options now facing the president. He said that the question that Obama is asking himself now is what the United States can contribute to preserve the two-state solution as a realistic objective, which the next administration might be able to achieve. Shapiro then added that the question — about which no decision has been made yet — is whether an initiative in the UN or some other international forum could contribute to the effort, which would continue under the next administration. The ambassador stressed that the Obama administration will certainly not support any decision that goes against Israel.

After many long months of leaks, speculations and rumors, this was the first time that a senior US official close to Obama confirmed on record that the president is considering giving his support to a diplomatic initiative regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the UN Security Council. The Israeli assessment that Obama will “chicken out” at the last minute and make do with a presidential “parameters” speech, just like President Bill Clinton did in 2000, was suddenly dealt an unexpected blow. Indeed, in response to Al-Monitor’s request, the White House had no comment on the ambassador’s interview with Channel 10, but Clinton’s statement managed to mitigate some of Jerusalem’s paranoia. On the other hand, “It’s not over till it’s over,” one senior Israeli official in Jerusalem told Al-Monitor Sept. 26 on condition of anonymity. “Obama could well be playing with us and wants us to be kept in suspense until his very last moment in office.”

Shapiro’s comments correspond well with remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry at a closed-door meeting with the donor nations to the Palestinians on Sept. 19. According to a report in Haaretz, Kerry was very critical of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, saying that Israel and the Palestinians are headed in the direction of a single state and war. He then added that if the international community really wants to stop this trend of unsustainable status quo, “either we mean it and we act on it, or we should shut up.”

Despite the Israeli assessment that Kerry was referring to steps on the ground, rather than some diplomatic initiative, his comments testify to the mood in the White House surrounding Obama. The president is about to decide whether to initiate a diplomatic process through the Security Council, to coordinate such an initiative with the French or give up and let the Palestinians and Israelis continue to squabble.

As of now, Jerusalem believes that Obama will make his decision on the day after the US election, once the whole world knows which candidate is about to enter the White House. “If Trump is elected, Obama will feel free to do what he wants and follow his heart and gut,” one senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “In that case, chances are good that the president will go all the way to block and trap Trump, creating a new reality in the diplomatic arena, which will make it difficult for Israel to continue its current policies.” The big question is what Obama will do if Clinton is elected. “In that case,” the same Israeli source said, “the question will be to what degree Obama wants to coordinate with Clinton.”

One US source close to the administration, who asked to remain anonymous, believes that Obama will coordinate all his moves with Clinton. Yet even this assessment fails to solve the equation, since the real question is what Clinton wants. Would she prefer to have Obama leave the work to her or would she rather that he do all the heavy lifting, make it easier for her to pressure Israel innocently, saying that the constraints were dictated by the previous administration.

People surrounding Netanyahu are concerned that Clinton will signal to Obama with a wink that he should go for broke by initiating a Security Council resolution, which would shorten the whole process of dealing with Netanyahu on the day after. Thus, she will be free of any pressure by the Jewish lobby, headed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, since the president before her initiated the move. This is Netanyahu’s nightmare scenario, which was alleviated, at least in part, after his meeting with Clinton Sept. 25.

Netanyahu is caught in an amusing conflict of interests.

On one hand, it is obvious that he would prefer to see Trump win the election. The meeting he had with Trump at his home in New York lasted almost twice as long as his meeting with Clinton (close to 1½ hours with the Republican candidate, compared to just 50 minutes with the Democratic candidate). The two men were more intimate; they both remember well the video clip in support of Netanyahu that Trump released before the 2013 Israeli election.

Right now, Netanyahu would love to release a similar clip in support of the Republican candidate, but he can’t. He would love to release it even though no one has any idea what a Trump presidency would be like in terms of Israel.

On the other hand, Netanyahu knows that a Trump victory would only push Obama closer to a UN Security Council resolution and a diplomatic catastrophe for his own policy. Luckily for him, Netanyahu is not the one who needs to choose between the two options. That’s the role of the American voter.

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