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Avi Shlaim on why Obama must stand up to Netanyahu

Decca Muldowney 7 March 2012

Writing in the Independent, Avi Shlaim, author of Israel and Palestine, argues that Barack Obama must stand up to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Nayanyahu, not only to save the fragile stability of the Middle East, but to protect the interests of the United States, and his own credibility as leader of the free world.

Shlaim describes Netanyahu's government as the most "aggressively right-wing, diplomatically intransigent, and overtly racist" in Israel's history, and Netanyahu himself as "a bellicose, right-wing Israeli nationalist, a rejectionist on the subject of Palestinian national rights, and a reactionary who is deeply wedded to the status quo."

Analyzing Netanyahu's view of the Arab world in his 1993 book A Place among the Nations: Israel and the World, Shlaim writes that,

Netanyahu does not believe in peaceful co-existence between equals. He views Israel's relations with the Arab world as one of permanent conflict, as a never-ending struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness... The book does not contain a single positive reference to the Arabs, their history or their culture. Autocracy, violence, and terrorism are said to be the ubiquitous facts in the political life of all the Arab countries. A democratic shift on the Arab side is a precondition to genuine peace with Israel, wrote Netanyahu, in the confident expectation that such a shift is beyond the realm of possibility. The Arab Spring has proved him wrong.

Netanyahu's dogmatic nationalism, combined with his inflexible view of Arab culture and politics, is dangerous not only to Palestinians, Shlaim suggests, but increasingly threatens friendly relations between the US and Israel. The nationalist drift of the Israeli government under Netanyahu prompts Shlaim to make the contraversial argument that,

The government is democratically elected, but by putting nationalism above morality and international legality, and by relying on military power to subjugate another people, it is in danger of drifting towards fascism.

Although Obama insists that the bond between the US and Israel remains 'unbreakable', Shlaim points out the relationship between the two is becoming increasingly strained and contradictory. Whilst Obama emphasized early in his presidency that a settlement freeze is "the essential precondition for progress in the American-sponsored peace process," he has nonetheless compromised on this issue on three separate occasions, following confrontations with Netanyahu.

Writing of the UN Security Council, Shlaim notes that since 1978 America has "used the veto forty-two times to defeat resolutions critical of Israel." However, he points that, "the most egregious abuse of this power" happened very recently in February 2011, when a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion was "supported by fourteen members and killed by America." In doing so, America farcically vetoed its own foreign policy.

If Obama cannot stand up to Netanyahu, Shlaim argues, he risks destabilizing the fragile relations in the Middle East even further. As Shlaim puts it,

The challenge for Obama is to reign in his reckless junior ally [Netanyahu] and to reorder American priorities in the Middle East. The main threat to regional stability is not Iran but the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. And the main source of hostility towards America throughout the Arab and Muslim lands is Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people and America's complicity in this oppression.

Visit the Independent to read Avi Shlaim's article in full.

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