Diplomacy: Netanyahu and ‘The Book of Why’

The 'Jerusalem Post’s' diplomatic correspondent examines the reasons certain decisions were made and the success of the visit.

PM Netanyahu addresses Congress fist 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Molly Riley)
PM Netanyahu addresses Congress fist 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Molly Riley)
WASHINGTON – When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu fired off an unprecedentedly sharp response to US President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech last Thursday night just two hours before boarding a plane to meet the president, it was clear this prime minister’s five-day trip to the American capital was going to be unlike any other.
And, indeed, it was. From the pre-boarding surprises that included Obama’s reference to a return to the 1967 borders and Netanyahu’s angry reaction, to the astonishing media session after their meeting in which Netanyahu essentially told Obama he was wrong; to Obama’s clarifications at AIPAC and his dig that Netanyahu was misrepresenting what he said; to the overwhelmingly warm reception Netanyahu received in Congress – this trip was exceptional.
And yet it remains full of questions. In the world of diplomacy, things don’t generally just happen. They are thought out, considered, weighed. And they have reasons. As such – when reviewing the major events of Netanyahu’s 2011 Washington trip – it’s instructive to ask one simple question: Why?
Why did Obama surprise Netanyahu with a speech that clearly stated the 1967 lines as the negotiation baseline?
Of all the “why” questions, this is perhaps the most difficult to answer, especially since sources close to the prime minister had been saying for days prior to the trip that there was close coordination between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office regarding the substance of both Obama’s speech and Netanyahu’s address to Congress.
In the final analysis, there wasn’t. Close coordination would have prevented the unpleasant surprises.
Yet Obama’s speech was full of them: In addition to the 1967 reference, there was also a failure to rule out talks with a PA government that includes Hamas, and an unwillingness to lay down a clear marker on the refugee issue and say – as George W. Bush once did – that the descendants of 1948 Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel.
One reason proffered for the surprise was a White House fear that if the information were shared with the Prime Minister’s Office a number of days, not hours, before the speech’s delivery, then it would have been leaked, triggering a chain of events that would have altered the content of the speech – content that Obama believes in.
According to one senior diplomatic source, the White House views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the following prism: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has the will to make peace, but not the power; Netanyahu has the power, but not the will.
The presidential tactics, therefore, are informed by that overall assumption. How to give Abbas the power, and Netanyahu the will.
Well, one way to give Abbas the power is not to undercut him in the eyes of his public – which an unequivocal “no” to the refugee issue would have done. Another way is not to completely rule out Hamas, especially when the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is so popular on the Palestinian street.
A third way to give Abbas power is to raise his stature among his people – something that is done by adopting a position he has put forward for months: a return to the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps, as the basis for negotiations.
And how, if you are Obama, do you give Netanyahu the will to make peace? Show him where the US stands; box him into a corner, force his hand.
Which is what Obama did. The time to procrastinate is over, Obama seemingly said Thursday night; “I want to see action now” – and then he laid out in what direction he wanted to see the action. This, he thought, would inject some will into a Netanyahu he viewed as recalcitrant.
Since taking office in January 2009, Obama’s policies on Israel seem infused by the assumption – long popular among some Israeli pundits and opposition leaders – that the Israeli public would never tolerate a direct confrontation with a US president, and if it came to that, the public would rally around the president, rather than their prime minister, so as not to risk the vital US-Israel relationship.
With that as an assumption, the president had no problem surprising Netanyahu – almost daring the prime minister to take him on. Obama apparently thought, mistakenly, that if Netanyahu did pick a fight, he would lose politically in Israel.
Why did Netanyahu choose to pick a fight with Obama, issuing an extremely tough response to the president’s Mideast speech?
The speech Obama delivered Thursday night was complex.
It is probably fair to state that for most people watching on television or listening on the radio, it did not seem that egregious.
The casual listener heard Obama come out against the delegitimization of Israel and the planned PA end-around run to the UN in September seeking recognition; restate his commitment to the country’s security; and acknowledge that the Fatah-Hamas agreement raised “profound and legitimate” questions for Israel.
Sure, the casual listeners also heard the reference to the 1967 lines, with mutual agreed swaps, and that Jerusalem and the refugee issue must be deferred down the line.
But, many probably thought, that has all been said many times before.
Indeed, one could – after hearing and reading that speech – choose to emphasize either the good or the bad, to find the cup half full or half empty. Netanyahu took a calculated decision to focus on the half-empty part of the cup.
Why? First of all, because he was genuinely angered, as was apparent in a furious phone call he had with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after he was informed of what would be placed in the speech. Netanyahu felt ambushed, as he felt during his first visit to the White House in May 2009 when the president sprung on him – unannounced – a demand for a complete settlement freeze.
Second, Netanyahu saw an opportunity to rally political support. As one of his aides put it on the plane to Washington early Friday morning, soon after Netanyahu’s sharp retort, “If I had to give the response a headline, I’d say the prime minister restored national pride.”
Netanyahu went to the US wanting to stand up to the president – feeling that following the pictures last Sunday of hundreds of Palestinians rushing the country’s northern borders, there would be huge public backing for saying clearly to the president that Israel could not return to the 1967 lines or tolerate any wishy-washy language on Hamas or the refugee issue.
Obama, the aide said, simply does not understand the Israeli psyche, and his failure to address the refugees – saying this would be dealt with later – just a few days after refugees rushed the Israeli borders, showed the degree to which he is tone deaf to the Israeli public.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, understands the public very well, and crafted his comments to align with the vulnerability much of the country feels. Indeed, a Haaretz poll Thursday showed that Netanyahu’s popularity skyrocketed as a result of the Washington trip.
Why, after issuing this response, did Netanyahu feel the need to cross swords with Obama when they issued joint statements after their Friday meeting?
According to Israeli sources, the Friday meeting was divided into two parts. The first part was a one-on-one meeting of about 90 minutes, followed by the public statements. The second part was an additional 30- minute talk, followed by a walk on the White House lawn.
According to one version of events, when Obama failed to clarify to the degree Netanyahu thought necessary what he meant about the 1967 lines, Hamas and the refugees, Netanyahu decided to challenge him publicly – saying that his call the night before about a return the 1967 lines would not happen, and reiterating that a return of refugee descendants or talks with Hamas was also nowhere in the cards.
Yet even before that meeting, Netanyahu had made clear during private conversations that his statement following his meeting with the president would be very important – an indication even before the meeting that he was going to publicly challenge Obama over his speech. And indeed, it was extraordinary watching him do so even as Obama was hosting and sitting next to him.
The statement, together with the meeting, had an obvious impact, as Obama then felt compelled to clarify what he meant during his AIPAC speech – clarifications that brought his positions more in line with those of Israel.
Why did Obama decide to speak before AIPAC, and why did he say what he said?
Obama’s decision to speak at AIPAC three days after delivering a major Middle East address echoed his decision in 2009 to go to Buchenwald after delivering his landmark address to the Arab world in Cairo.
A pattern is emerging: Deliver a speech to the world that is difficult to Israeli ears in one forum, and follow up with a speech geared toward American Jews in another, seemingly designed to reduce the fallout.
While Obama’s visit to Buchenwald in 2009 resonated with American Jews who were touched by the symbolism of an American president visiting the concentration camp, it did not strike any chord with Israelis.
Likewise, in his AIPAC speech, Obama seemed to be trying to pave over, for American Jews, the pot-holes he had created in his Mideast speech.
And of course, a speech to AIPAC makes good political sense. Obama can tell his critics on the Left that he had the “courage” to stand before 10,000 passionate Israel supporters and speak forthrightly about what was needed to forge Middle East peace.
But at the same time, he can tell Jewish critics of his Israel policies that he went to AIPAC and explained fully what he meant. To the world, he didn’t call Hamas a terrorist organization; to the Jews, he did. To the world, he didn’t say that settlement blocs would remain inside Israel; to the Jews, he hinted that they would. To the world, he didn’t rule out once and for all any Palestinian refugee return; to the Jews, he stepped closer in that direction.
Obama, for all his bluster during the speech about not taking the easy path and avoiding controversy, knows that he is going to need Jewish support in the next elections: both financial support and the votes. He also knows that with his Israel policy, he risks losing a few percentage points of the 78% of the Jewish vote he garnered in 2008, and that those percentage points, in key battleground states like Florida and Ohio, could be critical in a close presidential race.
Or, as Ari Fleischer, former spokesman to president George Bush, said at a panel at the AIPAC conference, if Obama wins over the Jews 4:1, as he did last time, he wins the next election; if he only takes the Jews 3:1, he’s in trouble.
Obama went to AIPAC and made his policy clarifications with those considerations obviously in mind.
Why was Netanyahu’s speech to Congress important, especially since he did not chart any radically new course?
While Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday did not detail a new Israeli program, it did set down basic markers that are not irrelevant. Or, as Netanyahu himself said in private conversations, what he was trying to do was pound some policy stakes into the ground that would not be moved by the swirling winds in the region.
And those stakes are: No return to 1967, no refugees, no Hamas, and the absolute necessity of the Palestinians recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Yet there were some other elements of the speech that deserve notice.
The first is that Netanyahu signaled flexibility – that he said he was willing to be “generous” if the Palestinians uttered six key words: “We will accept a Jewish state.”
Second, it is important to notice that Netanyahu never speaks of dismantling, destroying or uprooting settlements.
Instead, as he said to Congress, “in any real peace agreement, in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”
Close aides to Netanyahu have said in the past that if a million Arabs live in Israel, there is no reason in the world why a Palestinian state must be cleansed of all Jews.
Third, when talking about a future Palestinian state – saying that Israel will be generous about the size but firm on where the border is put so the lines are defensible – Netanyahu never used the word “contiguity.” This was not an oversight, and it is not clear how exactly he envisions a link between the West Bank and Gaza.
And fourth, he indicated – for the first time publicly – some wiggle room on Jerusalem, saying that while it “must remain the united capital of Israel,” he also believed that “with creativity and with goodwill a solution can be found.”
Although these points are significant, they don’t give the speech its importance. That comes from the reception the address received. That Israel’s prime minister received a rock-star ovation from both sides of the aisle of both houses of Congress sends an important message of support to both friend and foe alike.
Netanyahu knows this, and he knew it before walking into the House chamber. He knew the symbolic value of a speech by a foreign leader to a joint meeting of Congress, something that only happens about four times a year. He knew that he had the rhetorical abilities to get the congressmen on their feet repeatedly.
He knew that the speech, and its reception, would fill many of his countrymen – and Jews around the world – with pride, and would boost his popularity at home.
And even if he knew Obama was probably not applauding either the content of the speech, or the fact that he went to Congress to deliver it, he gambled that in the long run, both he and the country would gain more by – in his mind – “speaking truth to power.”