It is hard to imagine a better show than two heads of state, both fluent, and capable of pushing the buttons that bring forth waves of applause. Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu know how to do it.
The immediate commentary in Israel was either partisan or skeptical. Party colleagues praised the speech before Congress for explaining Israel''s position, aspirations, and minimum terms for agreement. Political opponents and media commentators noted that they heard what they expected from the Prime Minister: an emphasis on the negative--what he would not do-- along with very general commitments to compromise.
The first Palestinian response was that he said no to 1967 borders, no to refugees, no to Jerusalem, and no to Fatah''s effort to seek reconciliation with Hamas. What is there for us to talk about?
A television journalist counted 33 occasions in the Prime Minister''s speech when American Senators and Representatives stood and applauded. A commentator sitting alongside him said that Netanyahu''s speech would not only convince the Palestinians that they had no Israeli partner. It would also convince President Obama and the heads of European governments that they had no Israeli partner for their efforts to produce peace.
The ball for the most prominent next event is in the Palestinian court. Will they or won''t they proceed to request the formal recognition of their statehood by the United Nations General Assembly? They can expect an absolute majority in New York, but they might not gain anything closer to home. At the least we can expect a continued absence of negotiations. Somewhat higher on the scale will be movements by Knesset members to extend Israeli law to various settlements beyond the pre-1967 and the expanded borders of Jerusalem where Israeli law already prevails. Such an action might not survive deliberations in the Government, parliamentary committees and the full Knesset. Even if it does, it might not change things any more than a UN General Assembly resolution recognizing a Palestinian state with or without borders, with or without the rights of refugees, and with or without a capital in Jerusalem.
As my late friend and colleague Murray Edelman might have said, this will be high season for the politics of symbols.
When Murray first articulated his contribution to political science, a UN General Assembly endorsement of their state would have produced for Palestinians a cup of coffee if they also paid ten cents. Now a UN General Assembly endorsement of their state will provide them with a cup of coffee if they also turn over two to five dollars, depending on where and what kind of brew.
I argued with Murray about the importance of symbolic politics. Symbols will provoke people to feel good or bad, shout in excitement or anger, and even kill, but they are unlikely to defeat a disciplined army or overcome substantial differentials in the resources of those doing the shouting and those being shouted against.
I cannot predict Murray''s comments on the here and now. He used to say that symbolic actions were important for the attention they gained and the people they moved.
There is little point in predicting what will be next, let''s say after September, when most national governments of the world are likely to have voted their endorsement of a Palestinian state, with or without the active support or passive acquiescence of the great powers. There may be apathy, as officials in the United States and other important countries realize that their best effort has brought no progress. Other crises may attract more attention. Several of them may be in the Middle East, where popular demands for change may be showing more disappointments and casualties than accomplishments. There will be less than six months to the first presidential primary contests in the United States, with candidates positioning themselves to demand something different from what the Obama administration has produced in economic policy, health care, or foreign policy. Europeans may become less interested in Palestine, and more concerned with debt problems closer to home, or an increase of unregulated and unwanted migration from the least stable parts of the Middle East.
It is also possible that Israel will find itself blamed for a stalemate considered important by opinion leaders and policymakers. There may be efforts to enact sanctions that go beyond the local boycotts or disinvestment resolutions seen to date. A nasty international mood may impact on the Israeli electorate. Netanyahu may be weakened by members of his own coalition and Knesset members further to the right who feel that his nay saying was not firm enough.
I often think of these notes as the equivalent of what a critic writes after an evening at a play or concert. Such a person recognizes a performance meant to entertain, enlighten, or enhance a mood. An observer of politics should also know that there is an element of theater in the statements and actions of those wishing to lead, as well as commentators and citizens. When observing governance, one may hope for something beyond the pursuit of admiration, but maybe not.