Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US secretary of state John Kerry in Berlin. Carlo Allegri / AP Photo
Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US secretary of state John Kerry in Berlin. Carlo Allegri / AP Photo

The US only encourages Netanyahu to behave badly

For more than two decades, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been playing Americans for fools – a role the US has filled to the detriment of its national honour and the cause of peace.

His entire career has been focused on demonstrating to Israelis that “America is a thing that can be easily moved in the right direction. They will not bother us”. Since first being elected prime minister in 1996, Mr Netanyahu has been proud of his ability to get away with defying US presidents, while paying no price for his defiance.

His successes have been due, in large measure, to the ties he has built with Republicans in Congress, using them to counter peacemaking efforts led by two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

After the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Mr Netanyahu went into action. Together with a small group of Likudniks, he launched a lobbying campaign against Oslo. Weekly faxes were sent to Congressional offices warning of the dangers that peace with the Palestinians posed for Israel and providing talking points that some members of Congress followed. It was unprecedented – an Israeli opposition party acting against their government lobbying the US Congress to turn against the policy of the US government.

The effort won allies among Republicans who were only too happy to place obstacles in Bill Clinton's way. When the GOP won control of Congress in 1994 and Mr Netanyahu won the Israeli elections in 1996, he was in a perfect position to accomplish his goal of ending the Oslo Accords.

The Republican-controlled Congress invited Mr Netanyahu to speak to a joint session. He used the opportunity to attack the peace process and to call on Congress to join him on a war footing against Iraq and Iran. Throughout the rest of his first term, Mr Netanyahu defied pressure from the administration to curtail settlement construction and to make a serious commitment to peace. He knew that Congress would "have his back".

Even when Mr Clinton did force the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu never fully implemented the agreement they concluded. And when Mr Clinton vigorously objected to Mr Netanyahu's plans to construct a new colony between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Israeli prime minister defiantly broke ground erecting Har Homa, a settlement that now houses almost 20,000 Israelis.

Mr Obama's aspirations to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace were also frustrated by Mr Netanyahu, whose second election as Israeli prime minister coincided with Mr Obama's entry to the White House. After two frustrating years, the US president put the process on hold.

In 2010, Republicans again won control of Congress and their new leadership once again invited Mr Netanyahu to speak to Congress. The Israeli used this appearance to rebuke Mr Obama's call for an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on "the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps". In the face of Israeli intransigence and Congressional pressure, once again the administration shelved peacemaking, until after the 2012 elections.

John Kerry's ill-fated effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were eclipsed by the disastrous and deadly Syrian conflict and the effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran – an agreement that Mr Netanyahu was determined to stymie. And so, when the Republican-led Congress invited Mr Netanyahu to deliver his third address to its members, he used this appearance to call on Congress to block the administration's support for the P5+1 deal with Iran.

Mr Netanyahu's Washington performances have been focused on two audiences. He sought to muster the support of his Republican allies to defeat the work of Democratic presidents, while at the same time seeking to demonstrate to his Israeli supporters how "very easily" he could "move America in the right direction".

While his first two efforts were a success, he failed with the third. Not only was he unable to block the Iran deal, but his gambit exposed a partisan divide over support for his policies, leaving Israelis uncomfortable about Mr Netanyahu's ability to manage their relationship with the US.

When he comes to Washington next week, Mr Netanyahu is a man on a mission. His mission? To make it clear to Israelis that he is still the "master" of America. Unfortunately, Democrats and Republicans alike will serve as his enablers.

Mr Netanyahu will meet Mr Obama. This time there will be no real pressure to stop settlements and make peace. Instead, we are told that Israel is in line to receive a dramatic increase in US aid – possibly as high as $4.5bn a year. Mr Netanyahu will then be honoured at an event hosted by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.

And to reassure Israelis that the "master" can still dominate US politics, he wangled a speaking engagement at the liberal Centre for American Progress and secured a glowing endorsement from Hillary Clinton, who pledged that, if elected president, she "would reaffirm [the] unbreakable bond with Israel – and Benjamin Netanyahu".

The entire exercise is shameful and distressing. Enabling Mr Netanyahu's bad behaviour only encourages more of the same. It's embarrassing and it's dumb. It's one thing to acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is dead, but it makes no sense to reward the guy who two decades ago pledged to kill peace, and then spared no effort to do just that.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

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