Has US taken on role of Israeli domestic opposition?

While opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid keep silent over growing Israeli construction in West Bank settlements, the United States has been issuing rapid-fire condemnations of the government's actions.

al-monitor US State Department spokesman John Kirby speaks about a hostage situation at a restaurant in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, during a press briefing in Washington, July 1, 2016. Photo by State TV/via Reuters TV.

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yair lapid, us influence, us-israeli relations, two-state solution, israeli politics, israeli-palestinian conflict, isaac herzog, benjamin netanyahu

Aug 23, 2016

All the hours that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent with newspaper editorial boards over the past two weeks add up to a far greater number than the number of hours that Foreign Minister Netanyahu has dedicated to the State of Israel’s foreign affairs. In meetings with journalists, Netanyahu explained the prolonged lack of a full-time foreign minister as a result of his desire to save the vacancy for Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog. Although both denied an Aug. 19 Channel 2 television report about a secret meeting they held in Caesarea, Herzog still has his eye on the empty foreign minister’s office in Jerusalem’s Givat Ram neighborhood.

Netanyahu finds it convenient to keep the head of the opposition in the wings as a potential foreign minister. How can Herzog attack the government’s settlement policy, for example, if tomorrow he may be tasked with explaining to the world that Israel is entitled to build on Palestinian land? How can he join critics of Israel’s West Bank occupation when his main rival in the opposition, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, is constantly breathing down his neck and running around the world to face off against anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions activists? This is why the crumbling Palestinian leadership is left with no Israeli partner except for the small Meretz party and the sidelined Joint List.

With the main opposition mum, it's a small wonder that even cries of despair by the world’s largest power fall on deaf ears. In a little over one month, the US State Department has issued no fewer than four reactions against the Israeli government, each harsher than the one before. Not a sound was heard from the ranks of the Zionist Camp.

After plans for construction of hundreds of housing units in the settlement of Maale Adumim and across the Green line in Jerusalem were advanced, State Department spokesman John Kirby expressed concern July 5 over what seems to be a systematic takeover of Palestinian land, expansion of Jewish settlements and legalization of illegal settlement outposts. According to Kirby, President Barack Obama’s administration has been holding “tough discussions” with the Israeli leadership on this issue and discussing with international allies ways to confront these moves, which “raise serious questions about Israel’s long-term intentions.” This, too, was met with total silence from the opposition, except for Meretz and the Joint List.

On July 27, Kirby reacted to an additional series of construction approvals in the occupied territories, saying the administration strongly opposes them as leading to a one-state reality, with perpetual occupation and confrontation. He also condemned Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes that have left dozens of people, including children, without a roof over their heads. Two weeks later, on Aug. 10, the State Department came out against the Israeli government’s plan to demolish Palestinian buildings in the West Bank town of Susya. The following day it issued a protest in response to reports that the Israeli government planned to expropriate Palestinian lands to rebuild the outpost of Amona, which had been built on private Palestinian land. The statement noted that over the past year, the Israeli government retroactively legalized 32 illegal settlement outposts in violation of its commitment to a two-state solution. And did anyone hear a peep out of Herzog attacking the government?

In a report published Aug. 21 by the Institute of National Security Studies, researcher Zaki Shalom assessed these reactions as designed to convey a clear and unambiguous message to Israel that the settlements are a “burning issue” for the administration and that it will continue to focus on it until the end of its term. Shalom notes that the series of US protests could indicate that the administration is preparing the backdrop and diplomatic-ideological justification for an American decision to abstain from vetoing a UN Security Council initiative to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the period between the November presidential elections and the Jan. 20 swearing-in of the new president.

Shalom called on the government to recognize the serious and far-reaching implications for Israel of such an inconvenient UN Security Council decision. He recommended that the government make a “concerted effort” to reach understandings with the Obama administration regarding the peace process and the settlements in order to avoid “retaliatory moves” such as annexation of lands in Judea and Samaria and abrogation of Netanyahu’s 2009 commitment to a two-state solution as set out in his landmark Bar-Ilan University speech.

The warnings about Obama’s endgame do not seem to impress Netanyahu and his government. Mazal Mualem reported in Al-Monitor that the prime minister's words at one of his recent press “briefings” — which more closely resembled a presentation — hinted that the Bar-Ilan speech was no longer valid. If so, it would mean Netanyahu is going back on his public commitment to the world, and especially to Obama, to promote the two-state solution. The recent strenuous Israeli settlement activity indicates that Netanyahu practices what he preaches. Yet it seems that the Zionist Camp didn’t read about it, didn’t hear about it and certainly didn’t speak out. The leaders of the centrist Yesh Atid and of the center-right Kulanu — two parties that promised their constituencies to support the two-state solution — also opted to bury their heads in the sand.

Haaretz reported Aug. 22 that for the first time in over a decade, Israel plans to build housing units in the Jewish settlement at the heart of the Palestinian town of Hebron. The report that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had decided to push forward construction in the city that competes with Jerusalem for the most explosive hot spot in the Middle East did not disrupt the summer recess of the main opposition party, either. After all, how many votes will they pick up from opposing the expansion of the Jewish neighborhood adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs?

If Netanyahu’s rule faces any danger, it doesn't lie within the leftist camp, but in the ranks of his internal right-wing opposition. It lies in wait within the leadership of his own Likud, in the ever-widening court of former Education Minister Gideon Saar or the offices of HaBayit HaYehudi. And even if the attorney general decides to pursue criminal charges against Netanyahu over a series of alleged wrongdoings, the 1977 electoral upset that brought the Likud to power will probably not reverse itself in 2017. The former defense minister, legendary Gen. Moshe Dayan, deserted the left-leaning Labor to serve as foreign minister in the right-wing government. He stood at the side of Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the Camp David negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and was instrumental in the peace agreement reached with Egypt. In contrast, Israel does not need a foreign minister to build settlements and destroy peace. It would be interesting to learn whether Herzog understands that.

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