Delegations from 47 countries were at a nuclear summit in Washington this past week among them were 37 heads of state. Noticeably absent was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The formal reason for his absence as repeated in the Israeli press was that Israel was fearful that the Arab and Muslim States would gang up on it for its refusal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and for the ambiguity of its own policy on nuclear weapons. While everyone assumes that Israel has Atomic Bombs and even knows what’s in Dimona, Israel has been deliberately ambiguous. Time and again it has stated that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. No one seems to believe this formal denial, repeated ad nauseum; perhaps no one should.
If the explanation offered in the press is accurate, then we have witnessed what political scientists would term anticipatory compliance. Fearful of isolation from the family of nations, fearful of the current campaign of delegitimization, Israel’s Prime Minister absented himself, isolated himself from his fellow heads of state and was not at the table when the safety of nuclear weapons was being discussed; when cooperation in the effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions was being raised. He did to himself what others could not have achieved. No matter that Israel was ably represented by Dan Meridor, the Prime Minister was self isolated. The fact that no attack on Israel materialized made his absence sadder still.
It is widely suspected that there was a second reason to duck the conference. Netanyahu would be returning to Washington empty-handed with nothing to say to President Obama who convened the conference and who had asked for some symbolic Israeli concessions in their private Oval Office meetings in March. With nothing to offer, he must have felt that he was better off not attending.
It was a high price to pay for defending what everybody concedes was a stupid move of announcing the building of Israeli housing in East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joseph Biden arrived to proclaim his love for Israel and the depth of the American commitment to Israel. The Prime Minister seemed to be unable to show his face in Washington. Stupidity has led to self isolation.
But much more important issues are at stake in this self isolation. We understand the tactics, but what is Israel’s strategy?
There seems to be none except to maintain the status quo.
I know that the Jewish establishment is deeply upset, at least formally – what is being said in private is quite a different matter—that the American administration is seeking to raise the issue of Jerusalem, to challenge Israel’s eternal, undivided capital. But even if we score points in the debate, the advantage is merely tactical and very short-term at best. If Israel is to have peace with the Palestinians – and that is a big if – then the status of Jerusalem will be determined by negotiations. In 2000, 2001 and in the last year in discussions between then Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, each side has a very clear understanding of what the other side needs regarding Jerusalem.
Let me be clear what I mean by strategy.
Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and several other countries now have shared de facto strategic interests in containing Iran and thwarting its nuclear ambitions. If one were to look at the larger picture and quit squabbling over stupidity and coalition politics, shared strategic interests, perhaps even existential interests should offer important political opportunities and we should be furious at Israeli leadership for getting itself bogged down in peripheral issues, no matter how symbolically important they may seem to be for them, while failing to avail themselves of the opportunities presented in the current political climate. The Prime Minister came to Washington in March to rally American Jews for a fight with the Administration. He went from his enthusiastic reception at AIPAC to meet with the President and brought with him a chart that detailed for the President and the Secretary of State that he and his office were not responsible for zoning issues in East Jerusalem. But he and his office are responsible for Israel’s place in the family of nations and for its relationship with Egypt and Jordan, countries with which it has signed a peace agreement, and with Saudi Arabia, which is central to Arab politics.
Self isolation is a lamentable. The failure to develop a real strategy, engage the United States and the anti-Iran Arab world is potentially tragic.
I wonder what Obama must have thought of the chart and the man who brought it. He had just had his greatest accomplishment as President, the historical passage of Health Care, he had told the American people: “We did it not because it was easy, but because it was right.” Netanyahu came to discuss zoning. When Obama raised the large issue of nuclear non-proliferation and containing Iran, Israel’s Prime Minister had diminished himself by thinking small and pathetically unimaginatively.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.