Bradley Burston
Haaretz (Opinion)
October 2, 2011 - 12:00am

Why would an Israeli prime minister mount the podium of the United Nations General Assembly to rebut a historic address over Palestinian statehood, only to sound like a man running for Congress in a Tea Party district?

He opens by attacking the United Nations, calling it a place of darkness and quoting a fundamentalist leader as branding it a "house of many lies."

With studied folksiness ("You couldn't make this thing up"), he segues to a warning of "the Islamic storm, the militant Islamic storm that threatens us." He takes a swipe at the New York Times ("better a bad press than a good eulogy, and better still would be a fair press") and moves to a greater Gotham variation on xenophobia ("And don't forget that the people who live in Brooklyn and New Jersey are considerably nicer than some of Israel's neighbors").

Maybe he knows, better than we do, where his strength lies. Or, given the ensuing events, Netanyahu might harbor other hopes for the Congress which welcomed him so warmly in May.

Netanyahu may much prefer that the House be the one to kill off the two-state solution, rather than shoulder the responsibility for doing so himself.

Surrounding the Palestinian effort to win UN endorsement for statehood, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and other coalition leaders have gone full throttle in strewing threats of retaliation against Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, from rescinding the Oslo peace agreements to formally annexing all West Bank settlements and surrounding areas to Israel.

So far, though, the threats have been little more than gratuitously nasty campaign fodder directed at hard right voters.

But as Israel celebrated the long new year's weekend of Rosh Hashanah, members of the U.S. House, in their zeal to punish the Palestinians, have left their Israeli counterparts in the dust.

Congress, effectively freezing $200 million in humanitarian aid, as House sources put it, "until the Palestinian statehood issue is sorted out," may have taken its first step toward crippling the Palestinian Authority and scuttling the possibility of a two-state solution.

More may follow. Holding out the threat of a complete cut-off of the some $600 million in U.S. economic and security aid to the PA, the ranking Democrat on the House Middle East Affairs subcommittee, Gary Ackerman, took a tone worthy of Lieberman and Steinitz.

If the Palestinians, he said, "are willing to consider putting their future in the hands of the United Nations, perhaps they should think about how much aid their friends at the United Nations will provide to accompany whatever meaningless, one-sided UN resolution they might pass."

"Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are falling over one another to show their support for Israel," the Forward's Natan Gutman wrote of the Congressional step. "Most observers, however, believe the move is more about political grandstanding than serious policymaking."

With respect to grandstanding, Netanyahu's role in the reported aid suspension remains unclear. Though he has interceded on the PA's behalf for aid in the recent past, he is now likely to score points with hard-line Israeli voters and U.S. Jews convinced, rightly or not, that Congress would not dare take action without consulting with the prime minister called by the New York Times a "singularly influential lobbyist."

The Congressional freeze comes at a time when IDF officers have been unequivocal in praise for the cooperation of, and the crucial role played by, Palestinian Authority security forces, in curbing violence in the West Bank.

American training and funding of PA units have played an important role in this regard. The freeze leaves security aid intact, for the present. Ironically, settlers, whose safety is dependent on IDF-PA cooperation, have been leading the charge to cripple and suffocate the Authority.

The suspension of aid also comes at a time when Abbas and the PA have made substantial gains in Palestinian public opinion versus the maximalist, Iran-leaning Hamas. It comes at a juncture when Hamas leaders are achingly keen to exploit any substantive, perhaps fatal undermining of the Authority, and certainly, any damage done to the two-state option by members of the House, of all people.

And it comes at a time when the Israeli public seems uniquely ready to put any peace process on hold, not out of desire to retain the settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but due to a stark loss of belief in the possibility of ever forging an accord with the PA. The shift in public opinion – in effect, fulfilling Benjamin Netanyahu's dream of dreams - expressed itself in polls published at the weekend.

Pollster Mina Tzemach, conducting a survey for Yedioth Ahronoth, found that 66 percent of Israeli Jews do not believe that there will ever be peace with the Palestinians. The same poll found that 45 percent of Israeli Jews fear for Israel's continued existence.

Completing Netanyahu's hat trick, fully 88 percent of the respondents said that Israel was a good place in which to live.

How does Tzemach explain the results? One factor may be the Israeli perception of life in the Middle East as a whole, she told Yedioth. "The good mood may stem from the Israeli citizen peering at the other nations surrounding him. When he draws a comparison, things look less horrible."

Overall, she observes, "People are withdrawing into themselves," noting that she herself cannot recall a poll that yielded such apparently paradoxical figures.

"As a defense mechanism, we make a separation between our personal lives and what is going on in the country. We're completely aware of what is happening here, but we don't let that influence us. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live here."


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