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White House Brainstorms Netanyahu Snubs: Will Administration Play Its Trumps?

Does the Obama administration really want to give Netanyahu the “cold shoulder” treatment?

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AP reports that the White House is now brainstorming more ways that they could undercut Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress on March 3, in which Netanyahu is expected to attack President Obama and US-European efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran. Among the options being considered:

a presidential interview with a prominent journalist known for coverage of the rift between Obama and Netanyahu, multiple Sunday show television appearances by senior national security aides and a pointed snub of America’s leading pro-Israel lobby, which is holding its annual meeting while Netanyahu is in Washington, according to the officials.

… the White House is now doubling down on a cold-shoulder strategy, including dispatching Cabinet members out of the country and sending a lower-ranking official than normal to represent the administration at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the officials said.

A great place to start would be for the White House to ask Congressional Democrats to skip Netanyahu’s speech. Thirty thousand people have signed a petition at MoveOn urging Democrats not to go. The administration has said publicly that it is up to Democrats if they want to go or not, but the White House could make clear privately that they would really appreciate it if Democrats don’t go. Many Democrats would likely heed such a private call from the White House; many have indicated they are “on the fence” about going, which is kind of like inviting people to ask them not to go. Thirteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus have said they won’t go, including James Clyburn, number three in the House Democratic leadership; G.K. Butterfield, head of the CBC; and civil rights icon John Lewis.

But if the administration really wants to “double down,” they should pay back Netanyahu in the currency he understands best. A key motivation for Netanyahu for shouting about Iran has been to “change the channel” internationally from criticism of Netanyahu’s “apartheid” policies in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, such as demolishing Palestinian homes, stealing Palestinian land and jailing Palestinians for nonviolent political activity. By making significant policy now moves in support of Palestinian independence and freedom, the administration could show Netanyahu and his amen corner that their “change the channel” strategy is now going to backfire. Here are two groups of things that the administration could easily do right now.

1. Make significant, prominent US policy moves to pressure Netanyahu on his policies in occupied Palestine, such as:

  • Significantly raise the volume of US protests at Netanyahu’s theft of Palestinian tax revenues.
  • Use prominent public pronouncements to help protect and raise the profile of Palestinians in the West Bank being persecuted by Netanyahu’s government for nonviolent protests against the occupation, like Abdullah Abu Rahmah.
  • Have the State Department prominently declare on March 2 that Netanyahu’s settlement expansions in the occupied West Bank are “illegal” under international law, as J Street has called for. Recent practice has been to say that the US is opposed or “deeply concerned,” widely perceived to be weak tea. “Illegal” will command the world’s attention and strengthen any future legal cases against Netanyahu’s settlement expansion at the International Criminal Court.
  • Ask the Internal Revenue Service to investigate tax-exempt “charities” in the US that funnel money to Netanyahu’s settlement projects in the West Bank for violations of US and Israeli law, as former Ambassador Marc Ginsberg and Rabbi Jill Jacobs have called for.

2. Unleash the Europeans and the international community to impose sanctions against Netanyahu’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.

Netanyahu and his amen corner have believed that their Republican friends in Congress will protect them from any substantial US retaliation for their relentless attacks on the Obama administration. But the Netanyahu lobby is weak in Europe. The Netanyahu lobby wants the US to use its influence to hold back Europe from imposing sanctions on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. This is a form of cooperation that is easy for the administration to withdraw, because compliance with the Netanyahu lobby’s demands is hard to detect. Suppose that the Europeans do something dramatic on March 2. Suppose the administration publicly says, “Oh, no Europe, please don’t do that,” and the Europeans do it anyway. Who will know how hard the administration tried to stay the hand of the Europeans? Who will know if the administration said something different to the Europeans privately?

Here are some things the Europeans and the international community could easily do:

  • European countries could announce their intention to impose and enforce increased sanctions against Netanyahu’s occupation policies in the West Bank. If Israeli exporters started to have a very hard time in Europe, they would certainly give Netanyahu an earful.
  • More European countries could formally recognize the state of Palestine.
  • European countries could announce their intent to pursue cases against Netanyahu’s policies in the West Bank at the International Criminal Court.
  • Brazil, South Africa and India could bring a resolution at the UN Security Council denouncing Netanyahu’s demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.

Does the administration really want to give Netanyahu the “cold shoulder” treatment? Then give him a display of what his world would look like without US diplomatic protection for his policies in the West Bank.

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