WASHINGTON – In the chandeliered, mirrored East Room of the White House, soon
after the Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian support delegations had
filed in and taken their places Wednesday evening, a voice came through the
speakers just before 7 p.m. announcing that “the program will begin in two
minutes.” And, indeed, two minutes later US President Barack Obama led Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walk through a
center door onto a slightly raised, plantbordered stage.
And, to a large
degree, the “program” felt like theater. All the actors wore dark suits; all
looked rather stern.
Each leader paid homage to Obama for shepherding
through the diplomatic process over the last 20 months, and they all
about bringing peace to future generations. Obama, like a director
watching his charges, stood by the lectern as each “actor” rose to
carefully prepared lines.
The words were well phrased, the sentiments
came across as deeply felt.
The rub is that it all left one with a
distinct sense of having seen this performance before.
The leaders spoke
about the need to “ask ourselves what kind of world do we want to
our children and our grandchildren” (Obama); about “seizing the current
opportunity” and “not letting it slip through your fingers” (Mubarak);
having “all eyes upon us” and needing to “show results sooner rather
(Abdullah); about a “new beginning that would unleash unprecedented
opportunities for Israelis, Palestinians and peoples throughout the
(Netanyahu); and about “not wanting any blood to be shed – one drop of
from the Israelis or the Palestinians” (Abbas).
Nice sentiments, at times
even soaring rhetoric, but it all sounded so tired, so worn, so familiar
so predictable. Close your eyes and this could have been the White House
1993, or Wye Plantation in 1998, or Camp David in 2000, or Aqaba in
Annapolis in 2007.
The same types of speeches, the same types of
promises, the same hopes.
Even, to a large degree, the same basic cast of
characters – Netanyahu, Abbas, Mubarak, Abdullah have all participated
similar moments. Only the identity of the US president continues to
“Politics is theater,” Netanyahu remarked en route to Washington
from Tel Aviv on Tuesday (noting as well – in a reference to the
week over the boycott of Ariel by a group of actors, directors and
that theater is also politics).
But this week’s “drama” in Washington was
not that the actors met, or that they shared a stage, or that they
nice monologues. In fact, there was – despite the careful American
staging – no
true drama here.
THE TRUE DRAMA will come if something, anything, emerges
from this particular performance, one that began with rock-bottom
from the critics, and which – because of the murderous attacks in Israel
accompanied “opening night” – at times seemed surreal. Hearing paeans to
on a day in which the parents of six children, a pregnant mother and an
man were buried after being gunned down on a road is nothing if not the
incongruous juxtaposition that defines the surreal.
To borrow from a
tired phrase having to do with war – that you should not fight the next
based on the last war’s tactics – Netanyahu came here with a clear
you also shouldn’t pursue peace using the failed approaches of the
“We left Lebanon, we got terror,” he said in the East Room, pausing
for emphasis. “We left Gaza, we got terror.
We want to ensure that
territory we concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored
enclave aimed at the heart of Israel, and also aimed at everyone sitting
What Netanyahu made clear in that short paragraph, perhaps
the the most telling and significant line of any of his public remarks,
known in journalism as the “nut graph,” is that the lesson of the past
“peacemaking” experiences is not that further land should not be
many in his own party and coalition would argue, but that it needs to be
And now Netanyahu’s task will be twofold – first to
convince Abbas and the Arab world that things ought to be done
because previous attempts didn’t work. And then to convince the Israeli
that they can be done differently.
Mubarak made clear in his speech that
Netanyahu’s first task – convincing the Arabs that things ought to be
differently – won’t be easy, since he said that the current talks needed
stand on the shoulders of previous agreements, or near agreements,
Israel and the Palestinians, whether implemented or not.
politely demur. His opposition to starting the current talks from the
where the previous round between his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and Abbas
stems not only from opposition to the far-reaching concessions that
and Abbas did not embrace, but also from the fact that Netanyahu does
to be bound by certain givens that have become accepted as Mideast
gospel over the years.
For instance, whereas Olmert and his predecessor,
Ariel Sharon, spoke of the need to uproot settlements in any agreement
Sharon uprooted some even in the absence of an agreement), Netanyahu has
publicly gone on record with similar sentiments. Conceding land, in his
does not necessarily mean forcibly uprooting settlements.
At least not in
the near future.
At least, he has never publicly said so.
Netanyahu often notes what a small percentage of West Bank land the
built-up area of the settlements takes up. And one of his advisers said
past that a litmus test of whether the Palestinians will be able to live
peacefully next to Jews is whether they will allow Jews to live among
During his stay in Washington, when asked at one point whether in
his mind a final agreement would necessitate removing settlements,
said that while he was not willing to say what the final framework would
like, there was a need for “new conceptions.”
The models “used in the
past have not proven themselves,” he said, neither in the security
with regard to settlements. In other words, Israel uprooted settlements
past – disengagement from Gaza – but that did not exactly enhance its
The diplomatic process cannot go down the same tired roads of
the past which did not prove themselves, Netanyahu said. Certain ideas
seen as axiomatic need revision.
“We can’t continue as if nothing has
happened,” he said, “as if things that were done over the last years
obligate a rethinking.” Including, he made clear, about everything that
do with the settlements.
Netanyahu said he is often told about the need
to think about “creative” solutions. “I am thinking about different
said. “I am thinking differently.”
Which all may be well and true. But
this particular performance is not a one-man show, and for this
to be pulled off, for there truly to be drama and not just the
lines, the Palestinians and the Arab world will necessarily have to
differently as well.
Act 1, scene 1, set the scene this
There will be a scene 2, but for there to be scenes or acts after
that will depend on the creativity of the players. Previous performances
troupe don’t give the audience much hope. Yet, great theater is full of