This, presumably, is not a revelation: It has been beyond obvious to anyone with a pulse that Obama and Netanyahu do not like each other. Obama, I imagine, thinks that Bibi is craven, a sabre-rattler, at best indifferent to the creation of a Palestinian state, and committed to expanding Israel's settlements regardless of the impact they have on the Palestinian people. Bibi, for his part, seems to think that Obama is weak, unconcerned with Israel's security, too-focused on an (at best) tertiary issue of securing Palestinian statehood, and is in opposition to the settlement project that Bibi and his party fervently support. There is no reason to think that the two would be besties. And so it is not surprising that Bibi would prefer a disempowered Obama in favor of an emboldened Republican Party, and that Obama would rather see Bibi kicked to the curb in favor of a more left-wing coalition. The idea that people prefer their ideological compatriots is not anything astounding.
So Bernstein begins with an argument that is unsupportable and ends with one that is unoriginal and uninformative. What on earth is in the middle? And here is where things go off the rails, for Bernstein has in his head an elaborate plot where President Obama is deliberately seeking to hurt Netanyahu in order to undermine the U.S./Israel relationship (Sayeth Bernstein: the current flap-up mostly derives from "the president’s discomfort with the (positive) trajectory of U.S.-Israel relations (i.e., 'no daylight') in the Clinton and Bush years"). This, presumably, is meant as a counter-hypothesis to the more-immediately intuitive one, which is that Obama is taking the actions that he is because he genuinely thinks that a two-state solution is important and he's genuinely skeptical that Netanyahu has any serious intention of pursuing one. What's the evidence?
Well first, Bernstein cites State Department funding of OneVoice, a prominent NGO working in Israel and Palestine to foster grassroots support in both communities for a two-state solution. Indeed, OneVoice may be the single most important NGO in Israel or Palestine devoted to that project; for that reason it is an eminently sensible recipient of State Department funds given that American policy has long been to promote acceptance of a two-state solution within both the Israeli and Palestinian communities? So what's the problem? The problem is that OneVoice came to the conclusion that Netanyahu posed a significant threat to the two-state agenda, and so (apparently after State Department funding ceased) organized and campaigned against him (and in favor of more left-ward candidates). But the fact that an organization (correctly) identified by the State Department as committed to enabling a two-state solution felt the need to campaign against Netanyahu isn't a strike against State, it's a strike against Netanyahu and all those who think that he'll do anything to make that dream a reality. This, in other words, is evidence that independent political actors in Israel committed to a two-state solution don't trust Netanyahu. It's hardly unreasonable or manifest of a plot for Obama to react the same way.
The second bit of evidence, though, takes us much deeper down the rabbit hole. Follow if you dare:
On March 6, less than two weeks before the election, a major Israeli newspaper published a document showing that Netanyahu’s envoy had agreed on his behalf to an American-proposed framework that offered substantial Israeli concessions that Netanyahu publicly opposed. Let’s put on our thinking caps. Where would this leak have come from? The most logical suspect is the American State Department.Only Imperial Stormtroopers could be precise, said Obi-Wan in one of his less-perceptive moments, and this reeks of that. Under Bernstein's chain of logic, we know the State Department leaked the information in attempt to weaken Netanyahu because ... it had the exact opposite effect. The actual result of the leak, as Bernstein notes, was that it pushed Netanyahu further to the right and caused him to make a declarative statement that a Palestinian state wouldn't occur "on his watch." Even under Bernstein's theory there's no reason why the Obama Administration would have wanted that outcome. And while it is of course possible that State miscalculated and its plan backfired, even under Bernstein's logic it wouldn't make a lot of sense -- as he notes, if it had worked "as planned" the result wouldn't have been to weaken the Israeli right, it would have simply redistributed right-wing votes to parties even further to the right. Again, there's no reason why Obama would want that. As much as Obama dislikes Bibi Netanyahu, I think it's fair to say a Naftali Bennett premiership would be far more distasteful.
So here’s the dynamic: Netanyahu, while talking tough publicly about terms for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, was much more accommodating privately during actual negotiations. Just before Israeli elections, the U.S. government likely leaks evidence of his flexibility to harm Netanyahu. As a result, Netanyahu starts to lose right-wing voters to smaller parties, and the left-leaning major opposition party takes a lead in the polls, putting Netanyahu’s leadership in question, just as the U.S. wanted.
Netanyahu responds by using increasingly right-wing rhetoric (including denying that he ever agreed to the framework in question), to win back the voters from smaller parties that the leak cost him. He wins, and almost immediately announces that his campaign rhetoric was misunderstood, and that he still supports a two-state solution when conditions allow. The Obama Administration then announces it nevertheless has to reassess relations with Israel, allegedly because Netanayahu is no longer committed to the two-state solution.
So you get it? The Obama Administration, or someone with similar motivations, leaks a document showing that in practice, Netanyahu was surprisingly flexible in negotiations sponsored by the U.S. Netanyahu then tries to compensate by sounding tough in the closing days of his campaign. The administration then pretends that this is much more meaningful than its actual experience with Netanyahu, as indicated by the document it likely leaked, because it was out to punish Israel for electing Netanyahu regardless.
Rather than assuming that a counterproductive State Department plan backfired, it would be far simpler to just ask who really benefited from the leak, based on what actually happened. And that's pretty straightforward -- the leak caused Bibi to issue statements quite antagonistic towards the creation of a Palestinian state, which energized the Israeli right and unified them behind Likud. The folks who benefited were members of Bibi's ideological camp who were unhappy with perceived Netanyahu softness towards a Palestinian state and wanted to push him right-ward. Plenty of folks meeting that description; quite few of whom are currently residing in the Obama State Department. I'm not saying that a discontented member of Bibi's coalition was responsible for the leak; I have no idea who did it. I am saying that the chain of reasoning Bernstein presents to concoct an elaborate Obama administration plot is transparently ludicrous.
Really, the roots of the discontent between Obama and Netanyahu are just as straightforward as they appear. Obama thinks the creation of a Palestinian state is really important. Bibi doesn't care one way or the other about it. That's what Israeli NGOs on the ground who are committed to this issue think. And even if you believe Bibi's apologia for his pre-election comments, and take him at his word that he wants a Palestinian state just not under "current conditions", it is still obviously the case that he's not planning on taking affirmative steps towards changing those conditions. After all, he didn't say "I'll do what I can, but ultimately I don't think the Palestinian leadership will sign on the dotted line." When he said "not on my watch," he said that he wasn't going to take any steps, that he had no interest in creating such conditions, or even taking what initiative he could to move things in the proper direction. One does not have to think Israel is entirely or even primarily responsible for the "conditions" not being right for a two-state solution and still believe that there are things a committed Israeli could do to make those conditions more favorable. For those of us who agree with Obama and think that a Palestinian state is a priority now, Bibi's stated preference for a Palestinian state in some undetermined theoretical future is hardly sufficient to label him an ally to the cause.
Bernstein concludes by saying that the ultimate goal of the devious Obama plot is to enact "a divide-and-conquer strategy to split off liberal Jewish Democrats from the communal pro-Israel consensus." He doesn't say what "pro-Israel consensus" he's talking about. If it's just the idea that we are "pro-Israel", then there's no split necessary -- advocating aggressively for two-states fits comfortably within the confines of "pro-Israel". If it's the idea that Netanyahu is a true-blue supporter of a two-state solution, then there's no consensus -- indeed, it's difficult to imagine that anybody seriously believes that. Liberals have no need to believe it because they never liked Netanyahu that much, and conservatives have no need to believe it because they never liked a two-state solution that much. In any event, Obama hardly needs to take steps to peel off liberal Democrats from anything -- liberal Democrats were already solid Obama backers to begin with.
No, what's really going on is a much deeper game of which Obama is only a small part of. The "pro-Israel consensus" for the past several decades has been quite clear: a two-state solution is the only valid solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have been dissenters from that consensus on both the far-left and the far-right, but a consensus it has been. But recently, there has been an emergent challenge to this consensus from the more mainstream right. Sometimes they've come out and stated their opposition outright, other times it has come cloaked under a muttered mantra of "in theory yes, but...." It is these persons who are trying to crack -- or perhaps more aptly, reshape -- the pro-Israel consensus so that it no longer views pursuit of a two-state solution as a necessary part of what it means to be pro-Israel. And in response, those of us who are committed to that vision are seeking to the hold the line, and reaffirm that ours is the true pro-Israel position, and if you're going to express indifference or hostility to two-states, then you can hang out with your buddies in the JVP.
It is divide and conquer, but the group that we're trying to peel off isn't liberals away from pro-Israel. It's proto-one-staters who want to stay under the mantle of "pro-Israel." That's not going to fly for much longer. Being pro-Israel isn't simply a matter of subjective sentiment or mouthing the right words at the right time. If you aren't willing to put in some elbow grease to preserve Israel's standing as a secure, democratic Jewish state -- which is to say, if you're not willing to actually fight for a two-state solution -- then you have no business calling yourself pro-Israel at all. And if that means the American pro-Israel community finds itself lining up against the third of Israeli MKs who don't seem to share that vision, then that's the way things crumble.