The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Last week, I criticized Bibi for making statements at the close of his campaign that may have helped him peel off a few voters from right-wing parties, but that he had to know would cost Israel diplomatically. In particular, he stated that given regional instability and Palestinian PM Abbas's collaboration with Hamas, there would be no Palestinian state under his watch-a statement not surprisingly simplified in the international media into "Netanyahu walks back his support for the two-state solution."
As I pointed out, the statement was effectively meaningless, because Netanyahu could finesse it away at any time, and it's not like there was any significant possibility that the opposition would reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians any time soon, for exactly the reasons Netanyahu articulated. But-and here's the key but-the Obama Administration, from the get-go, has been looking for any excuse to distance itself from Israel in general (recall that in early 2009 he told Jewish leaders that the Bush Administration had been too friendly to Israel and that it was important to create "daylight" between Israel and the U.S.) and Netanyahu in particular, going back to when Obama, still a presidential candidate, made it clear that he would have no fondness for an Israeli government led by Netanyahu's Likud party. Netanyahu's speech to Congress on Iran only exacerbated that dynamic, and it was his responsibility not to give Obama any further excuses to downgrade U.S.-Israel relations.
But that doesn't mean we should let the Obama Administration off the hook for its egregious dishonesty. The administration did everything it could to undermine Netanyahu and help the center-left opposition, including sending State Department funds to an organization working to defeat Netanyahu.
While trying to strengthen Israel's left, the administration also apparently tried to undermine Netanyahu with Israel's right. On March 6, less than two weeks before the election, a major Israeli newspaper published a document showing that Netanyahu's envoy had agreed on his behalf to an American-proposed framework that offered substantial Israeli concessions that Netanyahu publicly opposed. Let's put on our thinking caps. Where would this leak have come from? The most logical suspect is the American State Department.
So here's the dynamic: Netanyahu, while talking tough publicly about terms for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, was much more accommodating privately during actual negotiations. Just before Israeli elections, the U.S. government likely leaks evidence of his flexibility to harm Netanyahu. As a result, Netanyahu starts to lose right-wing voters to smaller parties, and the left-leaning major opposition party takes a lead in the polls, putting Netanyahu's leadership in question, just as the U.S. wanted.
Netanyahu responds by using increasingly right-wing rhetoric (including denying that he ever agreed to the framework in question), to win back the voters from smaller parties that the leak cost him. He wins, and almost immediately announces that his campaign rhetoric was misunderstood, and that he still supports a two-state solution when conditions allow. The Obama Administration then announces it nevertheless has to reassess relations with Israel, allegedly because Netanayahu is no longer committed to the two-state solution.
So you get it? The Obama Administration, or someone with similar motivations, leaks a document showing that in practice, Netanyahu was surprisingly flexible in negotiations sponsored by the U.S. Netanyahu then tries to compensate by sounding tough in the closing days of his campaign. The administration then pretends that this is much more meaningful than its actual experience with Netanyahu, as indicated by the document it likely leaked, because it was out to punish Israel for electing Netanyahu regardless.
Indeed, recent reports show that the administration was planning to retaliate against Israel diplomatically if it reelected Netanyahu months ago, not only before his controversial election remarks, but before his Iran speech to Congress was even planned. (In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if Israeli intelligence had gotten wind of this, and thus Netanyahu thought he had little to lose by irritating Obama further with his speech).
In short, the current crisis in U.S.-Israel relations has little if anything to do with what Netanyahu said at the end of his campaign, and a lot to do with the president's longstanding hostility to the Likud Party in general and Netanyahu in particular, along with the president's discomfort with the (positive) trajectory of U.S.-Israel relations (i.e., "no daylight") in the Clinton and Bush years. Netanyahu's fault lies not in creating that hostility, but in failing to manage or at least mitigate it, in particular by giving the Obama Administration sufficient ammunition that its supporters, at least those who aren't paying sufficient attention, seem to believe that the animus, and the blame for the deteriorating relations, has primarily run in the opposite direction.
And to be clear, I'm not claiming that Obama isn't sincerely outraged at Bibi; rather, the outrage, disgust, hostility, whatever you want to call it, has little to do with the events of the past week, and is primarily a result of Obama's longstanding attitudes that predate his presidency. These used to be mitigated by his political need not to unnecessarily provoke pro-Israel voters, but with his administration winding down, he seems to have decided that he'd rather try a divide-and-conquer strategy to split off liberal Jewish Democrats from the communal pro-Israel consensus.