Netanyahu heads to Washington


Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and President Shimon Peres, 2nd right, attend a Memorial Day ceremony commemorating Israeli civilians killed in war and other conflicts, at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on May 9, 2011.


Baz Ratner

BOSTON — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress on May 24, it will be at a key moment when his country is confronted with many new challenges stemming from the upheavals of the "Arab Spring."

After having watched through the winter as all their assumptions crumbled along with the regimes they had been used to, Israelis shudder as the Arab Birnam Wood seems to be battering at the very walls of Dunsinane.

Netanyahu is coming to Washington as Israel is faced with new Palestinian demonstrations and attempts to crash Israel’s borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.

Clashes between pro-Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces erupted along Israel's borders Sunday, leaving at least 12 dead on a Palestinian mourning day marking the birth of the Jewish state.

The border conflicts broke out on "Nakba Day." Nakba — Arabic for "catastrophe" — marks the period when more than 700,000 Arabs were displaced from their homes during fighting that followed the creation of Israel in 1948.

Any country has to defend its borders, but the fact that Israel opened fire, killing several unarmed demonstrators, will lead to questions about inappropriate use of force that have long dogged Israel.

The Israeli foreign office was quick to point out that by choosing Israel’s independence day, “the leaders of these violent demonstrations have personally stated that their struggle is not over the 1967 lines, but rather to undermine the very existence of the State of Israel.”

Defense Minster Ehud Barak addressed Israel’s fears when he said that the border clashes “may only be the beginning of a new type of battle for Israel as Palestinian activists move away from armed confrontation in favor of popular protests aimed at winning wider support for their cause. Once the headline of ‘terrorist’ is dropped, we are left in control of another people, which has continued for 43 years. This way they use the weapon of ‘soft power’ to embarrass Israel.”

Perhaps even more upsetting than the demonstrators themselves, was the fact that Syria, which had always respected Israeli red lines, and kept order on the border, was now acting differently.

“The outburst of cross-border violence could not have taken place without the consent — or the active support — of the Syrian army, given its tight control of the border zone,” said the foreign office. “This appears like an attempt by the Syrian regime to create a distraction from the violent crackdown it is currently carrying out thoughout the country.”

The Syria they knew was better than an uncertain Syria, Israelis feel. That, combined with the collapse of their best friend in the Arab world, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, puts Israel into a siege mentality. The worst case scenario would be a hostile regime taking over from King Abdullah of Jordan along Israel’s frontier. So far Abdullah, who will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington today, appears safe, but not entirely secure.

To the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu will present the dangers that Israel faces, and put in the usual pitch against Iran. But the back story is that he has been invited to address Congress by the new, feeling-its-oats House of Representatives, which the Republicans now control.

The GOP is well aware of Obama’s difficult relations with Netanyahu, and that Israel deeply mistrusts Barack Hussein Obama. In a counter maneuver, Obama will lay out his vision of where the Middle East is headed the day before Netanyahu puts forth his to Congress.

Few countries have such an influence on each other’s domestic politics. Israeli voters will not let a prime minister stray too far away from Israel’s primary benefactor, and Israel’s strength lies in the American Congress, where candidates are punished if they stray too far from Israel. Armenians and Greek Americans have their influence in foreign affairs, but no lobby compares with the Israel lobby for clout and effectiveness.

Obama went eyeball to eyeball with Netanyahu over settlements in the occupied territories the moment he took office. But Obama blinked first, and Netanyahu won that round. Now, with Israel so afraid to be left along in a shifting Arab sea, Netanyahu may wish to avoid confrontation with the administration.

Netanyahu comes soon after special representative for peace talks, former Sen. George Mitchell, handed in his resignation — having found that making peace in Ireland, which he did successfully, was a cake walk compared to making peace in the Holy Land.

Peace negotiations are dead in the water, and Israel’s focus is on the Arab uproar, and how Iran might benefit from it. But the prospect of a deal between Hamas and Fatah, sends further shivers up the Israeli spine. One could argue that, in the long run, you need a united Palestine to make peace with, but such arguments won’t wash with a Likud government that is very dubious about a Palestinian State in the first place.

There are some Israelis who think that there are opportunities for Israel in the Arab Spring; that in the long run an Arab world moving towards democratic values which Israel shares should be good for the Jewish state. There are Israelis who feel there are opportunities, too, if dissenters in Syria take a different view of Syria’s alliance with Iran and its support for Hezbollah. But they are in the minority.

It is well and good to say, "Oh if only Israel had settled the Palestinian issue they would be in a better position in a post-Mubarak world," but that didn’t happen.

Past experience has shown that when troubles come Israelis stick to their right wingers who don’t take chances. And peace cannot come between Jews and Arabs without taking chances.

Political scientists point out that when a people feel secure they build bridges to other groups, but when they are afraid they protectively fall back into their core group and build psychological barriers against “The Other.”

Netanyahu, never the most expansive personality when it concerns Arab-Israeli relations, comes to address Congress at a time when Israel feels itself in a state of siege unknown since Anwar Sadat’s friendly gesture 37 years ago, which led to a cold peace with Egypt, its largest neighbor.

Now Israel cannot count absolutely on that peace holding, or anything else in the shifting sands of their troubled neighborhood.