Obama Bibi Handshake 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the latest diplomatic slapdown pitting the president of the United States against the prime minister of Israel, Israel lost – as did both leaders. Barack Obama looked like an amateurish bungler, roiling a region which needs calm while again cementing three Palestinian positions which need softening – the 1967 borders, the “right” of return and the continuing refusal to negotiate. Binyamin Netanyahu may have looked less foolish – and less petulant in their dueling White House soliloquies – but he did more harm. This debacle was avoidable; Bibi’s boo-boo triggered Barack’s backlash.
Watching Obama’s State Department speech was like reading a bad undergraduate paper. The first part, regarding the Arab Spring, was too vague. The second part, on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, was too specific. Obama seemed unprepared. He did not sound ready to articulate a doctrine that can guide American action as the Arab world changes. Beyond endorsing democracy and peace, Obama neither explained his previous reactions nor offered clear guidelines for the future.
Meanwhile, Obama’s dictat for Israeli-Palestinian progress felt rushed, and not properly previewed to prevent squabbles, struggles, then backpedals. The brouhaha over his endorsing 1967 borders with swaps, and the fear that he thus fed the Palestinian delusion that the “right” of return is achievable, were both avoidable. But, like a harried undergraduate producing a pointless paper just to be on time, Obama was hurrying to preempt Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress.
The Republican Speaker of the House must be delighted with the trap he
sprang on the Democratic president – using Bibi as bait. John Boehner
drew the president into this mess, which probably alienated more
Democratic donors, forced Obama to “clarify” his Thursday remarks on
Sunday, and sparked a firestorm which can only damage the president.
When Republican leaders invited him to address Congress, Netanyahu
probably considered this a great coup; he would have one of the world’s
greatest stages to show off his oratorical talents, while outmaneuvering
Obama and other Israel-skeptics before pro-Israel Republicans.
But Netanyahu overlooked the defining rule of gravity in Israel-America
relations: In any confrontation between president and prime minister,
Israel loses. With the United States the superpower and Israel the
lonely little guy, its dependence on American friendship is too great.
An Israeli prime minster may succeed in tweaking a particular policy,
but only by draining the reservoir of presidential goodwill.
So when, as happened Thursday, an Israeli prime minister yells at the
American Secretary of State just before a major presidential address,
Israel loses. When the prime minister denounces presidential proposals
before visiting the president, Israel loses. When the president stews as
the prime minister lectures him – albeit eloquently and indirectly –
Israel loses. And when the president sits at a joint press appearance
with his hands placed protectively over his body and under his chin,
telegraphing mistrust, Israel loses.
Once Obama said what he said, Bibi had to say what he said. But Obama
said what he said because Bibi was going to say what he wanted to say to
Congress. Netanyahu made his ritualistic visit to AIPAC a big deal by
accepting the Congressional invitation. Predictably, the New York Times
headline “Obama presses Israel to make ‘hard choices’” resulted.
Not all exchanges hurt Israel.
Obama disapproved of delegitimizing Israel, and said the Palestinians
must explain how they proposed to work for peace while working with
Hamas, whose charter advocates Israel’s destruction. And there is value
in the vigorous debate that erupted about what peace can look like, and
how to use history as a helpful guideline. Obama believes that to
support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, he must free Israelis
from today’s status- quo prison, reinforced as it is by complacency and
existential fears. That goal explains why he focuses on the millions of
Palestinians living under Israeli control, yearning for real statehood
and full civil liberties. But as America’s most pro-Palestinian
president since Jimmy Carter, Obama must also free the Palestinians from
their delusional prison, its bars reinforced by lingering longings and
deadly hatreds. He must tell them time does not stand still, that they
must dream more about their future state rather than deliriously
demanding or violently planning a return to 1967 or 1947. Yet Obama’s
finger points more easily and wags more vigorously at Israeli caution
than Palestinian rejectionism and violence.
The logical starting point in advocating a two-state solution comes by
acknowledging that borders shift and populations move, particularly in
historic Palestine. Only fools or fanatics claim that borders were ever
permanent. We cannot undo history. We must move forward, from 2011,
trying to minimize disruptions to populations while maximizing
satisfaction on both sides. Rather than trying to freeze one random
moment in time, demography and the current status quo should be our
guides, tempered by sensitivity, creativity and some history, but not
too much. And being realistic entails dealing with the current US
administration. In assessing this week’s errors, hopefully Netanyahu
will learn not to provoke the president, and that scoring debating
points only goes so far.
When Israelis and Americans squabble, Palestinian rejectionists rejoice.
This spring’s great outrages are not Obama’s proposals or Netanyahu’s
hesitations, but Fatah’s new friend in Hamas, Egypt’s new unreliability
as a peace partner, Iran’s continuing rush to nuclear power, and the
Arab world’s continuing war against Israel’s existence, aided by the
Left’s useful idiots. These common enemies, along with enduring common
values, should keep America’s president and Israel’s prime minister
cooperating, whatever tactical quibbles may arise.The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of
Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.