The National – 22 February 2009
JERUSALEM // Apprehension is mounting in Israel over the damage that its “special relationship” with Washington will suffer if, as expected, the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, puts together a far-right government in the coming weeks.
A rift with US officials is already opening over the kingmaker role of Avigdor Lieberman, who leads Yisrael Beiteinu, an anti-Arab party, and is being widely touted as a senior cabinet minister in the incoming government.
His demand for loyalty legislation that threatens to strip the country’s Arab population of citizenship would, US officials note, put Israel’s government publicly at odds with the new, more inclusive era being promised by Barack Obama.
Israeli officials are worried that a US backlash could strengthen the hand of the president’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, whose task it is to revive the moribund peace process with the Palestinians.
Last week, Maariv, an Israeli daily newspaper, reported on concerns that Mr Mitchell might recommend economic sanctions against Israel, including cuts to the billions of dollars of annual aid, if a Netanyahu government allowed further expansion of West Bank settlements.
On Friday, as Mr Netanyahu was asked to form a government, the Obama administration publicly denied that it was seeking to interfere in the outcome of the coalition negotiations.
However, behind the scenes, according to the Israeli media, Mr Netanyahu is facing stiff pressure to abandon a government with the far-right parties.
Only hours after Mr Netanyahu was given his mandate, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, stressed that Washington would be pushing for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu favours what he calls “economic peace” rather than a territorial agreement with the Palestinians.
Equally, the US administration is believed to be concerned about allegations that Mr Netanyahu’s key partner in government, Mr Lieberman, once belonged to the Kach movement, outlawed as a terrorist group in 1994. Michael Ben-Ari, of the National Union, a right-wing party, and a self-declared former Kach member, would also be included in any far-right coalition.
The White House is said to prefer that Mr Netanyahu instead join forces with his chief rival, Tzipi Livni of the centrist party Kadima.
So far Ms Livni has insisted she will not serve under Mr Netanyahu, but has hinted she may accept a “rotation” that would see both leaders alternating as prime minister. The two are due to meet today.
Not-so-veiled warnings to the Likud leader were issued last week by two former US ambassadors to Israel. Daniel Kurtzer, who served under George W Bush, advised that the inclusion of Mr Lieberman in the incoming government would be a “bad combination for American interests”.
In comments reported by the Israeli media, he told an audience at Georgetown University: “There will be an image problem for an American administration to support a government that includes a politician who was defined as racist.”
In a separate speech, Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, recalled Mr Netanyahu’s “considerable trouble” with Washington when he was prime minister in the late 1990s.
Israel’s shift rightward has aggravated press coverage in the United States. One leading US newspaper has even gone as far as to break a taboo by questioning Israel’s democratic credentials.
An editorial in the Los Angeles Times asked: “Can a nation founded as a Jewish homeland – with a ‘right of return’ for diaspora Jews but no one else, a Star of David on the flag and a national anthem that evokes the ‘yearning’ of Jews for Zion – ever treat non-Jews as true, equal citizens?”
Visits by three US Democratic politicians to Gaza late last week were also seen as a possible harbinger of souring relations with Israel. All three voiced shock at the destruction wrought on Gaza.
These developments have added to the concern of leading US Jews that the special relationship is under threat.
Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organisation of America, told The Jerusalem Post newspaper that Mr Lieberman’s “image is so tarnished, it wouldn’t be good for Israel” if he held a prominent cabinet position.
According to Mike Prashker, the director of Merchavim, an organisation in Jerusalem promoting shared Israeli citizenship, “when it comes to core democratic values, American and Israeli Jews are headed in diametrically opposite directions. These elections have revealed Israeli democracy as dangerously hollow.”