WASHINGTON – It was never about his middle name or the color of his skin or even the views of his former spiritual leader. Israeli concerns about Barack Obama’s presidency have always revolved around the question of whether he “gets” the Middle East – whether he fully internalizes the ruthlessness of those in this region who are trying to wipe us out, and the relentlessness with which they have been battling for decades to do so.
And as his presidency has continued, the series of disputes he has had with our prime minister have only exacerbated Israeli worries.
Binyamin Netanyahu is neither a beloved prime minister nor one whose policies and leadership style enjoy anything approaching automatic consensual support. But to take, as prime examples, the two fundamental areas where we have witnessed the president and the prime minister profoundly and publicly at odds – first, over how best to make progress on the twin aims of thwarting Iran and advancing Israeli- Palestinian reconciliation, and now over the imperatives born of the dizzying Middle East turmoil – it seems safe to say that most Israelis believe Netanyahu has been reading the region more accurately than Obama.
At the root of their first public spat two years ago was Obama’s argument that blocking Iran’s nuclear drive would be easier if only there were progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Taking substantive steps toward healing our conflict, the president reasoned, could remove a key recruiting tool for the Islamists and their state champion, unleash a surge of moderation in the region, and bolster Arab states’ confidence in joining with the West in facing down Tehran.
Netanyahu held to the opposite view, insisting that if Iran’s nuclear program were halted, and its soaring self-confidence punctured, this would liberate more moderate forces across the region, notably among the Palestinians. But so long as Iran was moving steadily toward the bomb amid perceived Western impotence and weakness, the prime minister argued, then, in the Palestinian context, the Iranian-armed, - trained, -financed and -inspired Hamas would feel itself in the ascendant, and the prospects of a Palestinian leadership offering and winning internal support for the necessary compromises with Israel would remain slim.
That very basic divergence was a recipe for friction between these leaders – two charismatic, ferociously self-confident, articulate men, who nonetheless do not quite speak the same language. And that friction indeed erupted into very open argument, notwithstanding the mutual rhetoric about an unshakable Israeli- American partnership and the practical evidence that this partnership indeed endures.
The US administration, convinced that the best thing it could do for Israel was press hard for urgent progress on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic front, made the issue of its opposition to settlement expansion a central factor as it tried to convince the Palestinians of its fair-minded approach. During the dispute over building in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood at the time of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit last year, it even went so far as to question Israel’s commitment to the bilateral relationship.
For the Netanyahu government, Obama’s focus on the settlements seemed spectacularly wrong-headed. In any territorial accommodation, it was clear, most settlements would in any case be dismantled. In the interim, construction had already been much reduced.
US preoccupation with the issue actually kept Mahmoud Abbas away from the negotiating table – how could he be less angry with Israel than the Americans were? – while gravely weakening Israel in the eyes of our ruthless neighbors, headed by Iran. If our superpower ally was publicly furious with us, they must have been thinking, then we were potentially more vulnerable. And if we were becoming more vulnerable, then why would a Palestinian leadership be inclined to moderate its maximalist diplomatic demands?
NOW, FOR the second time, the president and the prime minister are fundamentally at odds in reading the region.
Obama, again doubtless well-intentioned, looks at a Middle East in chaos and argues that Israel will be in greater danger if it cannot find a way forward with the Palestinians now. “A new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region,” he told the AIPAC conference on Sunday. “A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.”
Or as he put it in his landmark Middle East policy speech the previous Thursday, “At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever. That’s certainly true for the two parties involved.”
Apparently thinking of Netanyahu, he observed in that same speech that “there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now. I disagree.”
Most Israelis, it seems fair to suggest, would side with their prime minister on this one too – not because we object to moving forward, ending the conflict and resolving all claims. Quite the contrary. It is rather because we sadly regard that essential goal as less attainable in this new climate of uncertainty.
In addition to our familiar concerns about the viability of leaders like Abbas and Syrian President Bashar Assad as partners for a high-risk land-for-peace diplomatic gambit, we must now ask whether these leaders will still be around a week, or a month, or a year from now. And if they are not, how committed their unknown successors might be to any accommodation we have achieved through our territorial withdrawal.
If even the seemingly stable Egypt of Hosni Mubarak can be ripped open overnight, bringing into question the sustainability of the most enduring of our peace accords, Israelis widely wonder, how confident could we possibly be of the preservation of any agreement with the now desperate, mass-murdering Assad that would give the Syrians the Golan high ground? How much trust could we afford to place in any accord with the now Hamas-partnered Abbas that would bring the Palestinians into terrifying proximity to the densely populated center of our country?
THE PRESIDENT took great offense at the “misrepresentation” (by the unnamed Netanyahu) of his partial blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian talks, and especially at the inaccurate notion that he was urging an Israeli return to the pre-1967 lines. Such territorial compromise would have to feature “mutually agreed swaps,” he repeated over and over in his AIPAC address, to warm applause.
But Obama’s indulgence of such border adjustments is not the issue here; the question of the minor land adjustments is not the heart of the disconnect.
The prime ministerial fury stems from the fact that our key ally has now publicly endorsed the main Palestinian territorial demand as the basis for negotiation, that he did so despite Netanyahu’s pleas not to, at a time when Israel is being physically threatened to some degree or other on all of its borders, and when our ostensible negotiating partner has just entered a reconciliation pact with Hamas. And, worst of all, Obama did not simultaneously require that the Palestinians give up their demand for a “right of return.”
As I wrote in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post
, “It is immensely troubling for many Israelis to recognize that our most important strategic partner is now publicly advocating, before any significant sign of Palestinian compromise on final-status issues has been detected, that we withdraw, more or less, to the pre-1967 lines – the so-called ‘Auschwitz borders’ – from which we were relentlessly attacked in our first two fragile decades of statehood. But only a president who ignores or underestimates Palestinian hostility to Israel could propose a formula for reviving negotiations in which he set out those parameters for high-risk territorial compromise without simultaneously making crystal clear that there will be no ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees.
“Obama is urging Israel – several of whose leaders have offered dramatic territorial concessions in the cause of peace, and proven their honest intentions by leaving southern Lebanon, Gaza and major West Bank cities, only to be rewarded with new bouts of violence – to give up its key disputed asset, the biblically resonant territory of Judea and Samaria, as stage one of a ‘peace’ process.
“But he is not [explicitly] demanding that the Palestinians – whose leaders have consistently failed to embrace far-reaching peace offers, most notably Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of a withdrawal to adjusted ’67 lines and the dividing of Jerusalem – give up their key disputed asset, the unconscionable demand for a Jewish-state-destroying ‘right of return’ for millions, until some vague subsequent stage...”
IN THE Knesset last week, Netanyahu hinted at a greater readiness than in the past for dramatic West Bank withdrawal, intimating that his commitment to settlements in the Jordan Valley and outside the major settlement blocs might be wavering. He signaled similar positions in his rapturously received address to the joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday.
But these were hints and signals, not commitments. In Congress, for instance, he employed the deliberately unclear line that “some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.” Did that mean that he would dismantle such settlements, or expect a new Palestinian sovereign power to protect them? The prime minister, who had polished every word of that speech, plainly did not want to say.
The Netanyahu two-state outline remains precisely that – an ambiguous overview. And while there are many Israelis who feel the prime minister is going unconscionably soft, there are also many who feel Netanyahu should long ago have set out a more generous and detailed position.
He had promised AIPAC on Monday that his speech to Congress the next day would “outline a vision for a secure Israeli-Palestinian peace.” But there was no series of dramatic new policies, even though Obama’s Sunday address to the pro-Israel lobby had provided a more reassuring context, with its clarifications on land swaps and its tougher language on Hamas, than the State Department speech.
Netanyahu’s two years of careful vagueness, born of his ideological commitment to the settlement enterprise, narrow coalition concerns and his characteristic desire to avoid alienating supporters, has harmed Israel’s international credibility, ultimately ill-serves those settlers whose lives would be most directly affected by the withdrawals he hints he is ready to order, and created the vacuum that Obama, unsurprisingly, has now begun to fill.
The prime minister’s speech to Congress was a rhetorical masterpiece. The passage in which he declared that “In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers...” eloquently asserted Israel’s historic claim to the lands the president is asking that we relinquish.
But Netanyahu has now evidently internalized the demographic challenge Israel faces, and says he is ready to cut a “generous” deal with the Palestinians, giving up “parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland.” If so, think how much more international empathy and support he would have obtained – support in the diplomatic struggle against Palestinian unilateralism – had he gone on to detail the parameters of potential compromise, and offered, for a start, a timetable for the demolition of illegal outposts and a pledge that all further settlement budgetary allocations would be limited to West Bank areas that Israel insists on retaining.
In the absence of precise prime ministerial commitments, and with Netanyahu understandably resisting Obama’s flawed new diplomatic blueprint, few international players are going to be dissuaded from endorsing Palestinian statehood at the UN in September. Unfair and short-sighted though Israel may feel this to be, the consequence could be greater Israeli isolation, boycott pressures and a perceived legitimization for Palestinian protest. The prime minister could have done more in Congress to try to avert this, and done so without diverging from his broad vision.
YET NETANYAHU has not come under heavy domestic pressure for greater compromise – the kind of pressure he felt as prime minister in the late 1990s – because the regional climate is so different. And mainstream Israeli readiness for wrenching concessions is in large part a function of our sense of the mood in the region around us.
As demonstrated by the results of the 1992 and the 1999 elections, which respectively brought Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak to power, when the public believes there are genuine opportunities for peace, it will oust leaders perceived as counter-productively obdurate (Yitzhak Shamir and first-term Netanyahu). Debunking the Arab extremists’ narrative that Israel only offers realistic peace terms when its people are being murdered, it is in periods of relative calm that the public gives its support to political doves, knowing full well that the compromises they favor will require the traumatic dismantling of much of the settlement enterprise. When it feels rising hostility, it goes into defensive mode.
Rarely in recent years has Israel had reason to feel as defensive and tangibly threatened as it feels now.
Several overseas commentators have this week scoffed at Israel’s security concerns and its fears of territorial withdrawal, noting accurately that we have an immensely strong army. They miss the point; it is not Israel’s conventional military strength that is being challenged.
The fate of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt is uncertain. All Israel’s borders were targeted on “Nakba Day,” with varying degrees of success, by the kinds of unarmed masses the IDF has found no effective means of dispersing without resort to force. Hezbollah and Hamas have vast missile arsenals aimed at targets throughout the country. Iran is still on track to the bomb.
And thus, when Netanyahu was reduced to lecturing the president in that excruciating White House session last Friday, an ally telling a superpower, “Sorry, but no we can’t,” he spoke not only for his natural constituency but for many more dovish Israelis too.
In a climate of regional tranquility, with a Palestinian leadership credibly asserting its peacemaking credentials, and no imminent specter of a vicious regional bully achieving a nuclear capability, the prime minister’s blunt declaration to the president that the 1967 lines “are indefensible” might not have enjoyed consensual Israeli resonance. The fact that Obama had indeed stressed the necessity for mutual land swaps might have been regarded as significant and sensible.
But in today’s utterly unpredictable Middle East, you could imagine heads nodding nationwide, and not only in Likud households, on hearing Netanyahu tell Obama, “Before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide... And these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive... The only peace that will endure is one that is based on reality, on unshakable facts... a peace that will ensure Israel’s security and will not jeopardize its survival... We don’t have a lot of margin for error.”
OBAMA’S EMOTIVE phrase in his AIPAC speech regarding the Jewish link to our sliver of territory – his reference to “all the centuries that the children of Israel had longed to return to their ancient homeland” – was extremely welcome. So unfortunately absent from his Cairo address two years ago, and left unsaid again in last Thursday’s State Department speech, this presidential endorsement of our historical connection to the land constituted a vital rejection of the abiding Palestinian narrative that absurdly denies our past presence here and thus denies the legitimacy of our modern sovereignty. And his characterization of Israel as “a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people” indicates that his administration rules out the notion of a mass influx of Palestinian refugee descendants.
But in the three days between his State Department address and his AIPAC speech, as he was successfully pressed by various pro- Israel advocates to formulate harsher wording on Hamas and introduce comments recalling the George W. Bush correspondence with Ariel Sharon about the “new demographic realities on the ground,” Obama was also urged to include for the AIPAC audience a specific negation of the “right of return.” And he chose not to do so.
I do not doubt that Obama opposes the “right of return.” He opted not to say this, however, not to provide Israel with that public reassurance, I am given to understand, because his current Israeli-Palestinian focus is aimed at preventing a diplomatic train wreck at the United Nations in September, when the Palestinians will seek international support for a state without the necessity of reconciliation with Israel. He is trying to build credible parameters for resumed negotiations, it is said, and in so doing to persuade other key international players, including the Quartet and the Europeans, not to lend their support to the unilateral drive for “Palestine.”
The president’s concern, apparently, is that to make explicit the inadmissibility of the “right of return” would run counter to the goal of enabling an environment among the Palestinians in which relatively moderate leaders can thrive. The Palestinians are preparing for elections next year under their new Fatah- Hamas reconciliation accord, and the White House did not want to spell out its position on the “right of return” because it feared this might force the likes of Abbas, whom it believes are prepared to give up that “right,” to publicly declare, for short-term electoral reasons, that they insist upon it.
In other words, Obama reasoned that it would actually be unhelpful to Israel for him to state explicitly that the Palestinians will indeed have to make this central concession, since it would weaken or box-in the very Palestinian leaders who might just agree to it. This is a dubious and complex argument, which I doubt would be widely endorsed in Israel.
It also exemplifies a striking double standard, and says a lot about who the administration wants around to advance Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy: Apparently it’s okay to go easy on Abbas over the “right of return” for fear that he might otherwise lose power, but just fine to turn the screws on Netanyahu, whose government would certainly fall were he to endorse the Obama formula of amended ’67 lines first, refugees and Jerusalem later.
The Israeli, and the American, imperative is to encourage the Palestinians toward reconciliation, both by demonstrating our willingness for viable compromise and by making explicit what it is that they are required to concede. The president chose not to follow that latter course; unsurprisingly, the prime minister felt obligated to fill the breach.
As he said on Friday, with Obama at his side, “The Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state, but certainly not in the borders of Israel... It’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen.” And again, this time to loud applause, before Congress on Tuesday: The Palestinians “continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees. My friends, this must come to an end.”
If Netanyahu and Obama had managed to actually speak to each other before the president delivered his Thursday speech, as real friends should, there can be no doubt that the prime minister would have implored him to include a phrase ruling out the “right of return.” And if the president had suggested that this might cause more trouble than it would avert, I imagine Netanyahu would have assured him that the risk was worth taking. And he would have been speaking for most Israelis.
AS THINGS stand, with Netanyahu instinctively and bitterly rejecting the talk of ’67 lines, and the Palestinians not being asked by the president to make any commitment at this juncture on the refugee issue, it is the Jewish state that is seen to be defying its ally again, and the Palestinians who are the perceived victims of that intransigence.
If the cerebral, analytical Obama resisted Netanyahu’s panicked pleas, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to reconsider some of his wording last Thursday because he believes he understands Israel’s interests better than the prime minister does, that would indicate a relationship dangerously soured both by those fundamentally divergent readings of the region and the personal antipathy between the two men. These are leaders pursuing the same ostensible goals; they should have quietly conceived the shared parameters for doing so.
And if the president’s motivation for the Israeli-Palestinian section of his speech was preventing that diplomatic train wreck at the United Nations in September, one can only sadly conclude that his approach may well backfire. The unsavory sniping and very public disagreements of the past few days, combined with Netanyahu’s preference for generalities over specifics in his address to Congress, seem far more likely to bolster than to reduce international sympathy for the disingenuous Palestinians, accelerating the dangerous unilateral momentum rather than slowing it.
Barack Obama regards himself as a friend of Israel – albeit one who has spent far too little time here and, consequently or otherwise, one with no particular empathy for the notion of an Israel expanded beyond its pre-1967 lines. (In his unscripted remarks at a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday, Obama characterized his suggested Israeli pullback to adjusted ’67 lines as one of the “perhaps less emotional issues” on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating agenda, in contrast to the “extraordinarily emotional” issues of Jerusalem and the refugees. Only a president obtuse or dispassionate about Israeli claims and attachments beyond the ’67 lines could have extemporized that particular formulation.)
But he plainly does understand the moral imperative, the heartfelt desire for normalization and the demographic considerations that motivate our relentless obsession with trying to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
Where we and he have consistently fallen out is over the paths to try to achieve it – with the differences, time and again, seeming to stem from his reluctance to internalize the extent of regional hostility to us, the centrality of an Arab narrative that argues that our country has no place here, wherever we draw our final borders.
“Why has peace not been achieved?” Netanyahu asked Congress rhetorically
on Tuesday. “Because, so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to
accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state
alongside it. You see, our conflict has never been about the
establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the
existence of a Jewish state.”
Opting not to insist – explicitly and relentlessly – that the
Palestinians come to terms with Israel as a Jewish state, specifically
by abandoning their demand to overrun it via an influx of refugee
descendants, simply gives the Palestinians room to perpetuate their
fundamental hostility and their dream of destroying us by weight of
numbers. Many, many Israelis wonder why Obama doesn’t “get” that.
Are you saying it would have been better for the president to have taken
a public position on all the final-status issues, someone asked me in
Washington this week? If he had coordinated with Israel, I answered,
then, of course.