I understand Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s instincts to confront President Barack Obama. Obama’s blaming Netanyahu while absolving the Palestinians is unfair. Obama’s ignoring Israel’s many concessions, Netanyahu’s movement toward a two-state solution, and the improved ground conditions under Netanyahu, is unacceptable. Obama’s humiliating Netanyahu with cold shoulders one trip, and pre-emptive speech strikes another trip, is ungracious. And Obama’s overlooking that Israelis feel burned, having watched Oslo’s concessions produce Palestinian terrorism, the Lebanon withdrawal fuel Hezbollah’s ascendance, and the Gaza disengagement yield a rain of rockets, is unfathomable.
If Netanyahu or anyone else in the pro-Israel community could prophesize that Obama will not get re-elected, the current strategy would make sense. But Obama still looks stronger for November 2012 than any Republican wannabes. Because Israel might face a President Obama until January 2017, with four final years unconstrained by re-election hopes, it is foolish to try embarrassing or circumventing him.
Netanyahu must remember that American foreign policy hinges on one individual, the President. Pro-Israel forces should not call this president anti-Israel, when he endorses “a secure Israel… as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.” Barack Obama may be America’s most pro-Palestinian incumbent president (Jimmy Carter is the most pro-Palestinian ex-president). Obama absorbed the politically correct atmosphere of Harvard Law in the late 1980s, along with the academic disdain and his preacher’s hatred for Israel in Chicago in the 1990s. But chariness is not hostility, especially in today’s universe of Israel-bashing world leaders. Labeling Obama anti-Israel is inaccurate, insulting and risks making him so.
How, then, do you solve a problem like Obama? Seeking subtlety, remember that the last two Presidents. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, while now considered “pro-Israel,” each clashed with Israel. Clinton, like Obama, craved a comprehensive Middle East peace, struggling with an Israeli Prime Minister named … Binyamin Netanyahu. Clinton hosted the arch-terrorist Yasir Arafat more times than any other foreign guest. Similarly, when the Palestinians first returned to terrorism, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell, regularly characterized Israel’s reactions as “too aggressive,” feeding the “cycle of violence.”
Eventually, Palestinian extremism transformed both Presidents. In 2000, Clinton blamed Arafat for unleashing the violence. Days before Clinton left office, Arafat visited the White House yet again, calling the President a “great man.” Clinton lashed back: “No, I''m not. On this I''m a failure, and you made me a failure.”
Two years later, in January 2002, Arafat tried bluffing George W. Bush, denying any involvement with Iran’s Karine-A arms shipment – contradicting clear proof. “Arafat lied directly to Bush,” one official reported. “No one does that, least of all someone who''s already on probation,” it being four months after September 11. Lawrence Kaplan in The New Republic described Bush’s disgust: “As a result, Arafat has accomplished what Ariel Sharon never could. He has aligned the United States and Israel more closely than at any time since the Reagan presidency.” Three months later, in April 2002, Bush backed Israel’s counter-offensive against Palestinian terrorism.
Never stop your enemy when he is harming himself. Considering that Mahmoud Abbas rejected Ehud Olmert’s generous territorial offer, why should Netanyahu hinder progress? Without sacrificing national self-respect, without accepting historical lies, Netanyahu should position himself as Obama’s ally in seeking peace. Netanyahu should emphasize his already stated openness to negotiations – including the proposed Paris talks. He should highlight his embrace of a two-state solution. And he should minimize disagreements with the President. Trust the Palestinians to reject the peace plan, while hoping they might be ready to make peace.
While Israel reveals its true character and defining consensus by pursuing peace, the pro-Israel community should follow the AIPAC strategy emphasizing American support for Israel as bipartisan. Calling the President or the Democrats anti-Israel, making Israel a wedge issue, is self-defeating. Anti-Israel Democrats should feel marginalized, not validated by seeing a polarizing, frontal assault on the President. Most Americans are pro-Israel. The party dynamics should reflect that happy reality.
The political dynamics must change from Bibi versus Obama to the Palestinians versus peace. Netanyahu made his stand, garnered his American applause, and reaped his domestic popularity bonanza. Now he needs damage control.
Words count. No one should attack “Obama’s 1967 border plan,” but the Palestinians’ all-or-nothing border plan. When the Palestinians encourage delegitimization of Israel, we should quote Obama saying “efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.” When the question comes as to who should show up at a peace parley, Israel should declare its willingness to negotiate and quote the President, asking the “Palestinian leaders” for “a credible answer” to the question “how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist.”
Words count. Still, American politics remains a contact sport. Pro-Israel donors should withhold their donations to Obama’s re-election, not because Obama is “anti-Israel” but because he has been ineffectual in unfairly burdening Israel. We should continue explaining historically why the Palestinians are lying when they claim they accepted the 1947 partition, and are hindering peace when they try freezing time by demand a right to return for descendants of refugees or consecrate the improvised 1949 armistice borders. Better to target these Palestinian positions, destructive Palestinian actions, the PA’s continuing incitement to evil, Hamas’ exterminationist charter, Hezbollah’s mad dash for missiles, and Iran’s genocidal aims, while leaving the President out of range.
Essentially, the pro-Israel community should trust the truth, emphasizing Israeli willingness to compromise, Palestinian addiction to rejectionism and violence, along with the broad, bipartisan pro-Israel American consensus. This upbeat, subtle approach may deprive Israeli voters of displays of macho bravado. It may not provide Diaspora supporters a kick in the Zionist adrenals. But it just might work.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. 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.”[email protected]