In case you haven't noticed, the Obama Administration is in the midst of an on-going and very public spat with the Netanyahu government in Israel. The "tit for tat" exchanges have been noted in the press, with reporters and some analysts providing banal motives for the acrimony. Some have suggested "revenge"-pointing to Netanyahu's support for Obama's 2012 rival, Mitt Romney. Others have relied on the old Washington standard-"bad chemistry". I believe, however, that it would be wrong to attribute the bitter words and bad feelings to trite personal concerns since there may be a strategic political purpose being served by this unfolding drama.
First, a recap of the most recent events-to set the stage:
A few weeks back, following a Netanyahu-Obama meeting in Washington, the White House rebuked the Israeli leader's announcement of new settlement construction in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israeli Prime Minister was quick to respond. He charged that the US criticism failed to reflect "American values", bizarrely claiming that since Palestinians have the right to live anywhere they wish in the "Land of Israel", that Jews should not be denied that same right. To their credit, Israeli commentators were quick to point out that this was sheer nonsense since it is well understood by Israelis that Palestinians cannot live anywhere they please. In fact, even Arab citizens of Israel are denied the right to live in most Jewish-only communities.
The White House quickly shot back at Netanyahu suggesting that his harsh words were both uncalled for and more than a little ungrateful, reminding him how the US had funded the "Iron Dome" and taken a host of other actions in Israel's defense.
Round two came last week as Netanyahu's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon came to Washington and left after failing to secure meetings with the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, and other top Administration foreign affairs officials. This slight might have passed unnoticed, but for an official leak that made the insult public. Once again, the Israeli press pounced making it clear that it was the minister's undiplomatic criticism of US Secretary of State John Kerry (Ya'alon had earlier charged that Kerry was driven by some sort of "messianic" complex in his efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace) that had caused him to become "persona non grata" at the State Department and White House.
The latest episode in this public spat came in the form of an interview given by an unnamed "senior Administration official" in which he was quoted saying
"The thing about Bibi is, he's a chickens**t...the good thing is he is scared to launch wars. The bad thing about him is that he won't do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arabs. The only thing he's interested in is protecting himself from political defeat...he's got no guts."
Tough words, to be sure, and what was most interesting was that the Administration let them stand for a full day, for maximum impact, before making any effort to diplomatically walk them back. The reaction in Israel was immediate and sustained. The Prime Minister acted like a wounded warrior claiming that he was being attacked solely because he was defending Israel.
While Netanyahu had some defenders, to be sure, many commentators were not buying his arguments. They charged that his behavior was not only putting the US-Israel relationship at risk; it was also isolating Israel in the world community. As evidence for their concern, they cited not only the above-noted repeated run-ins with Washington but also the decision of Sweden to recognize the State of Palestine and pro-Palestinian votes in Britain and Ireland, and new warnings from the EU over settlement plans in Jerusalem.
With the recklessness of Netanyahu's own actions and those of his extremist allies fueling an ever-increasing volatile situation in Jerusalem and with the Palestinians launching an effort at the United Nations against settlements and for an end to the occupation, the Prime Minister's newly emboldened critics have become increasingly concerned that the last thing Israel needs in the face of these serious challenges is isolation from its friends in the West.
Netanyahu may have already written off the Obama White House and may be counting on a Republican Congress to save him from the Administration's pressure, but opinion in Israel appears not to share his confidence that the country can whether the storms created by his defiance. They are warning that regardless of which party wins the upcoming US election, Israel may be heading for two long and lonely years.
This is what, I believe, is behind the Administration's gambit. The President has long been frustrated by the Israeli Prime Minister's wily and often dishonest maneuvering. But knowing that the opposition in Israel is too weak at present, to win control of the government, something needed to be done to shake up the internal Israeli debate.
The "conventional wisdom", as projected by some former US officials and pro-Israel groups in Washington, is that Israelis will only make peace when they are given everything they want and feel secure. In fact, the opposite is true. It is only external pressure-especially pressure from the US-that historically has forced Israelis to make the right choice. George H. W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker did just that when publicly rebuked and then denied loan guarantees to then Prime Minister Shamir in the early 1990's. Bill Clinton did much the same when he refused to meet with Netanyahu and sent clear signs of his displeasure with the Prime Minister's behavior in 1998. In both instances, Israelis got the message and unelected these Likud leaders in favor of governments that promised to restore the US-Israeli relationship and move toward peace.
This may very well be what the Obama Administration is up to right now. It is a gamble, to be sure. It may be too late to empower the Israeli peace camp and stop the right-ward drift in that country. But it is a risk that must be taken. Secretary Kerry was right to link the conflict against ISIS with the Israel-Palestine conflict. With delicate negotiations underway with Iran and in the midst of a war for the future of Iraq and Syria, the last thing the US needs is a pyromaniac in Jerusalem pouring gasoline on the fires that will inflame the entire region.
Netanyahu must go, but for that to happen, the debate in Israel must change and that country's peace forces must be strengthened to the point where they will coalesce around a candidate that will move the country in a different direction. That process is beginning. But if it is to have any chance of succeeding, it must be sustained. If Washington were to become weak-kneed and back down: Netanyahu would win, peace would lose, and the US will not, any time soon, get another opportunity to restore its leadership in the region.
Dr. James J. Zogby is The President of Arab American Institutes.