WASHINGTON – When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu fired off an unprecedentedly
sharp response to US President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech last Thursday
night just two hours before boarding a plane to meet the president, it was clear
this prime minister’s five-day trip to the American capital was going to be
unlike any other.
And, indeed, it was. From the pre-boarding surprises
that included Obama’s reference to a return to the 1967 borders and Netanyahu’s
angry reaction, to the astonishing media session after their meeting in which
Netanyahu essentially told Obama he was wrong; to Obama’s clarifications at
AIPAC and his dig that Netanyahu was misrepresenting what he said; to the
overwhelmingly warm reception Netanyahu received in Congress – this trip was
And yet it remains full of questions. In the world of
diplomacy, things don’t generally just happen. They are thought out, considered,
weighed. And they have reasons. As such – when reviewing the major events of
Netanyahu’s 2011 Washington trip – it’s instructive to ask one simple question:
Why did Obama surprise Netanyahu with a speech that clearly stated the 1967
lines as the negotiation baseline?
Of all the “why” questions, this is perhaps
the most difficult to answer, especially since sources close to the prime
minister had been saying for days prior to the trip that there was close
coordination between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office regarding
the substance of both Obama’s speech and Netanyahu’s address to
In the final analysis, there wasn’t. Close coordination would
have prevented the unpleasant surprises.
Yet Obama’s speech was full of
them: In addition to the 1967 reference, there was also a failure to rule out
talks with a PA government that includes Hamas, and an unwillingness to lay down
a clear marker on the refugee issue and say – as George W. Bush once did – that
the descendants of 1948 Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian
state, not to Israel.
One reason proffered for the surprise was a White
House fear that if the information were shared with the Prime Minister’s Office
a number of days, not hours, before the speech’s delivery, then it would have
been leaked, triggering a chain of events that would have altered the content of
the speech – content that Obama believes in.
According to one senior
diplomatic source, the White House views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
through the following prism: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has
the will to make peace, but not the power; Netanyahu has the power, but not the
The presidential tactics, therefore, are informed by that overall
assumption. How to give Abbas the power, and Netanyahu the will.
one way to give Abbas the power is not to undercut him in the eyes of his public
– which an unequivocal “no” to the refugee issue would have done. Another way is
not to completely rule out Hamas, especially when the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation
is so popular on the Palestinian street.
A third way to give Abbas power
is to raise his stature among his people – something that is done by adopting a
position he has put forward for months: a return to the 1967 lines, with
mutually agreed swaps, as the basis for negotiations.
And how, if you are
Obama, do you give Netanyahu the will to make peace? Show him where the US
stands; box him into a corner, force his hand.
Which is what Obama did.
The time to procrastinate is over, Obama seemingly said Thursday night; “I want
to see action now” – and then he laid out in what direction he wanted to see the
action. This, he thought, would inject some will into a Netanyahu he viewed as
Since taking office in January 2009, Obama’s policies on
Israel seem infused by the assumption – long popular among some Israeli pundits
and opposition leaders – that the Israeli public would never tolerate a direct
confrontation with a US president, and if it came to that, the public would
rally around the president, rather than their prime minister, so as not to risk
the vital US-Israel relationship.
With that as an assumption, the
president had no problem surprising Netanyahu – almost daring the prime minister
to take him on. Obama apparently thought, mistakenly, that if Netanyahu did pick
a fight, he would lose politically in Israel.Why did Netanyahu choose to
pick a fight with Obama, issuing an extremely tough response to the president’s
The speech Obama delivered Thursday night was complex.
is probably fair to state that for most people watching on television or
listening on the radio, it did not seem that egregious.
listener heard Obama come out against the delegitimization of Israel and the
planned PA end-around run to the UN in September seeking recognition; restate
his commitment to the country’s security; and acknowledge that the Fatah-Hamas
agreement raised “profound and legitimate” questions for Israel.
the casual listeners also heard the reference to the 1967 lines, with mutual
agreed swaps, and that Jerusalem and the refugee issue must be deferred down the
But, many probably thought, that has all been said many times
Indeed, one could – after hearing and reading that speech –
choose to emphasize either the good or the bad, to find the cup half full or
half empty. Netanyahu took a calculated decision to focus on the half-empty part
of the cup.
Why? First of all, because he was genuinely angered, as was
apparent in a furious phone call he had with US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton after he was informed of what would be placed in the speech. Netanyahu
felt ambushed, as he felt during his first visit to the White House in May 2009
when the president sprung on him – unannounced – a demand for a complete
Second, Netanyahu saw an opportunity to rally
political support. As one of his aides put it on the plane to Washington early
Friday morning, soon after Netanyahu’s sharp retort, “If I had to give the
response a headline, I’d say the prime minister restored national
Netanyahu went to the US wanting to stand up to the president –
feeling that following the pictures last Sunday of hundreds of Palestinians
rushing the country’s northern borders, there would be huge public backing for
saying clearly to the president that Israel could not return to the 1967 lines
or tolerate any wishy-washy language on Hamas or the refugee
Obama, the aide said, simply does not understand the Israeli
psyche, and his failure to address the refugees – saying this would be dealt
with later – just a few days after refugees rushed the Israeli borders, showed
the degree to which he is tone deaf to the Israeli public.
the other hand, understands the public very well, and crafted his comments to
align with the vulnerability much of the country feels. Indeed, a Haaretz poll
Thursday showed that Netanyahu’s popularity skyrocketed as a result of the
Washington trip.Why, after issuing this response, did Netanyahu feel the
need to cross swords with Obama when they issued joint statements after their
According to Israeli sources, the Friday meeting was divided
into two parts. The first part was a one-on-one meeting of about 90 minutes,
followed by the public statements. The second part was an additional 30- minute
talk, followed by a walk on the White House lawn.
According to one
version of events, when Obama failed to clarify to the degree Netanyahu thought
necessary what he meant about the 1967 lines, Hamas and the refugees, Netanyahu
decided to challenge him publicly – saying that his call the night before about
a return the 1967 lines would not happen, and reiterating that a return of
refugee descendants or talks with Hamas was also nowhere in the
Yet even before that meeting, Netanyahu had made clear during
private conversations that his statement following his meeting with the
president would be very important – an indication even before the meeting that
he was going to publicly challenge Obama over his speech. And indeed, it was
extraordinary watching him do so even as Obama was hosting and sitting next to
The statement, together with the meeting, had an obvious impact, as
Obama then felt compelled to clarify what he meant during his AIPAC speech –
clarifications that brought his positions more in line with those of
Israel.Why did Obama decide to speak before AIPAC, and why did he say
what he said?
Obama’s decision to speak at AIPAC three days after delivering a
major Middle East address echoed his decision in 2009 to go to Buchenwald after
delivering his landmark address to the Arab world in Cairo.
A pattern is
emerging: Deliver a speech to the world that is difficult to Israeli ears in one
forum, and follow up with a speech geared toward American Jews in another,
seemingly designed to reduce the fallout.
While Obama’s visit to
Buchenwald in 2009 resonated with American Jews who were touched by the
symbolism of an American president visiting the concentration camp, it did not
strike any chord with Israelis.
Likewise, in his AIPAC speech, Obama
seemed to be trying to pave over, for American Jews, the pot-holes he had
created in his Mideast speech.
And of course, a speech to AIPAC makes
good political sense. Obama can tell his critics on the Left that he had the
“courage” to stand before 10,000 passionate Israel supporters and speak
forthrightly about what was needed to forge Middle East peace.
But at the
same time, he can tell Jewish critics of his Israel policies that he went to
AIPAC and explained fully what he meant. To the world, he didn’t call Hamas a
terrorist organization; to the Jews, he did. To the world, he didn’t say that
settlement blocs would remain inside Israel; to the Jews, he hinted that they
would. To the world, he didn’t rule out once and for all any Palestinian refugee
return; to the Jews, he stepped closer in that direction.
Obama, for all
his bluster during the speech about not taking the easy path and avoiding
controversy, knows that he is going to need Jewish support in the next
elections: both financial support and the votes. He also knows that with his
Israel policy, he risks losing a few percentage points of the 78% of the Jewish
vote he garnered in 2008, and that those percentage points, in key battleground
states like Florida and Ohio, could be critical in a close presidential
Or, as Ari Fleischer, former spokesman to president George Bush,
said at a panel at the AIPAC conference, if Obama wins over the Jews 4:1, as he
did last time, he wins the next election; if he only takes the Jews 3:1, he’s in
Obama went to AIPAC and made his policy clarifications with
those considerations obviously in mind.Why was Netanyahu’s speech to
Congress important, especially since he did not chart any radically new course?
While Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday did not detail a new Israeli program, it did
set down basic markers that are not irrelevant. Or, as Netanyahu himself said in
private conversations, what he was trying to do was pound some policy stakes
into the ground that would not be moved by the swirling winds in the
And those stakes are: No return to 1967, no refugees, no Hamas,
and the absolute necessity of the Palestinians recognizing Israel as the
nation-state of the Jewish people.
Yet there were some other elements of
the speech that deserve notice.
The first is that Netanyahu signaled
flexibility – that he said he was willing to be “generous” if the Palestinians
uttered six key words: “We will accept a Jewish state.”
Second, it is
important to notice that Netanyahu never speaks of dismantling, destroying or
Instead, as he said to Congress, “in any real
peace agreement, in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements
will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”
Close aides to Netanyahu have said
in the past that if a million Arabs live in Israel, there is no reason in the
world why a Palestinian state must be cleansed of all Jews.
talking about a future Palestinian state – saying that Israel will be generous
about the size but firm on where the border is put so the lines are defensible –
Netanyahu never used the word “contiguity.” This was not an oversight, and it is
not clear how exactly he envisions a link between the West Bank and
And fourth, he indicated – for the first time publicly – some
wiggle room on Jerusalem, saying that while it “must remain the united capital
of Israel,” he also believed that “with creativity and with goodwill a solution
can be found.”
Although these points are significant, they don’t give the
speech its importance. That comes from the reception the address received. That
Israel’s prime minister received a rock-star ovation from both sides of the
aisle of both houses of Congress sends an important message of support to both
friend and foe alike.
Netanyahu knows this, and he knew it before walking
into the House chamber. He knew the symbolic value of a speech by a foreign
leader to a joint meeting of Congress, something that only happens about four
times a year. He knew that he had the rhetorical abilities to get the
congressmen on their feet repeatedly.
He knew that the speech, and its
reception, would fill many of his countrymen – and Jews around the world – with
pride, and would boost his popularity at home.
And even if he knew Obama
was probably not applauding either the content of the speech, or the fact that
he went to Congress to deliver it, he gambled that in the long run, both he and
the country would gain more by – in his mind – “speaking truth to power.”