Patrick Martin

Why Benjamin Netanyahu is not leading delegation to Washington

The last thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needed was another issue to drain international support from his country.

Already Israel has been bleeding from his government’s settlements policy in occupied Palestinian territory, which has alienated U.S. President Barack Obama; from its apparent willingness to forge other countries’ passports in order to carry out an assassination, which has angered Britain; and from its refusal to address charges contained in a UN report on alleged war crimes in Israel’s assault against Hamas in Gaza last year.

This week, the hemorrhaging spread to one of Mr. Netanyahu’s pet subjects – the need to stop nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands – and the Israeli leader seemed ill-equipped to staunch the bleeding.

At a rare press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Netanyahu was almost taking credit for next week’s Washington summit on nuclear proliferation. “I have been speaking about terrorism and nuclear terrorism for decades,” he said, noting the “important and welcome change, that the President of the United States and leaders of 40 countries are seized of this issue.”

Of course he would be a participant at the summit on Monday, he told reporters. “I’m not concerned that anyone would think that Israel is a terrorist regime,” he said.

Barely 24 hours later, however, the Prime Minister’s office announced, without explanation, that Mr. Netanyahu would not be leading Israel’s delegation to Washington.

What happened?

“It might have been the realization that the conference was going to be hijacked and redirected against Israel’s policy of not signing the NPT [the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty],” said Mark Heller, principal research associate of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Indeed, both Turkey and Egypt have indicated they would raise the matter of Israel’s own alleged nuclear arsenal. But that was hardly news.

“Frankly, I was surprised that he said he was going to the conference in the first place,” said Mr. Heller. Mr. Netanyahu had to know about the possibility of a hijacking, and “he certainly recalls how he was ridiculed the last time he returned from Washington.”

Last month, Mr. Netanyahu was reported to have received a tongue-lashing from President Obama over Israel’s continued policy of building settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, including in east Jerusalem. Israeli media have reported widely on the demands Mr. Obama made at that meeting in order for peace talks with the Palestinians to resume, and on Mr. Netanyahu’s reluctance to comply.

It is “quite possible,” said Mr. Heller, “that Washington may have advised him to stay away.”

“‘Do us a favour: We can achieve a lot more without you here,’ they could have said,” Mr. Heller speculated. “‘We don’t want this summit to be about Israel either.’”

Considering how much Mr. Netanyahu has been identified with the issue of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, the notion that he wasn’t welcome at the summit would have come as a shock.

But in view of the international beating the Prime Minister has been enduring it’s almost certain he was advised by his political supporters not to take any more chances.

Interestingly, the issues that have caused Mr. Netanyahu the most grief have all been concerned with matters of international law.

Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister and an expert on international law, attributes much of the legal approach regarding these issues to the U.S. President.

“Obama is a rule-of-law President,” Mr. Cotler said, noting the President, a former constitutional law professor, also has emphasized other legal issues such as torture and the Guantanamo detention centre in his agenda.

When it comes to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the issue that has most clouded Israel’s relations with the United States, it’s the first time they’ve been viewed primarily through a legal prism, he said.

“Past U.S. administrations viewed the settlements as ‘ill-advised’ or as ‘obstacles to peace,’ but not usually as illegal.”

“But Obama sees them as illegal,” he said.

There is a similar situation with the UN report of Judge Richard Goldstone into Israel’s attack on Gaza last year that killed 1,300 people. While the Netanyahu approach has been to argue that the report is an assault on all countries trying to fight terrorism in an attempt to rally allies such as the United States and Great Britain to use their clout at the Security Council to get the report shelved, those same friends have been expressing their own reservations about Israel ducking international legal obligations.

Now, with the nuclear weapons issue on the table, while Mr. Netanyahu might prefer political pressure and old-fashioned intimidation to bar rogue states and organizations from attaining the weapons, Mr. Obama seems inclined to use international treaties and other forms of international law.

Indeed, a year ago Mr. Obama told an international audience in Strasbourg that he sought “a world without nuclear weapons” and has worked toward that goal since then.

“The rule of law is Obama’s organizing idiom, the way in which he frames the issues,” Mr. Cotler said. “If that is how the U.S. President frames the issues, then Israel would be well-advised to do the same.”

Source:  Canada’s National Newspaper


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