Center field: Dueling diplomacy

Netanyahu overlooked the defining rule in Israel-US relations: In any confrontation between president and prime minister, Israel loses.

Obama Bibi Handshake 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama Bibi Handshake 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the latest diplomatic slapdown pitting the president of the United States against the prime minister of Israel, Israel lost – as did both leaders. Barack Obama looked like an amateurish bungler, roiling a region which needs calm while again cementing three Palestinian positions which need softening – the 1967 borders, the “right” of return and the continuing refusal to negotiate. Binyamin Netanyahu may have looked less foolish – and less petulant in their dueling White House soliloquies – but he did more harm. This debacle was avoidable; Bibi’s boo-boo triggered Barack’s backlash.
Watching Obama’s State Department speech was like reading a bad undergraduate paper. The first part, regarding the Arab Spring, was too vague. The second part, on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, was too specific. Obama seemed unprepared. He did not sound ready to articulate a doctrine that can guide American action as the Arab world changes. Beyond endorsing democracy and peace, Obama neither explained his previous reactions nor offered clear guidelines for the future.
Meanwhile, Obama’s dictat for Israeli-Palestinian progress felt rushed, and not properly previewed to prevent squabbles, struggles, then backpedals. The brouhaha over his endorsing 1967 borders with swaps, and the fear that he thus fed the Palestinian delusion that the “right” of return is achievable, were both avoidable. But, like a harried undergraduate producing a pointless paper just to be on time, Obama was hurrying to preempt Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress.
The Republican Speaker of the House must be delighted with the trap he sprang on the Democratic president – using Bibi as bait. John Boehner drew the president into this mess, which probably alienated more Democratic donors, forced Obama to “clarify” his Thursday remarks on Sunday, and sparked a firestorm which can only damage the president.
When Republican leaders invited him to address Congress, Netanyahu probably considered this a great coup; he would have one of the world’s greatest stages to show off his oratorical talents, while outmaneuvering Obama and other Israel-skeptics before pro-Israel Republicans.
But Netanyahu overlooked the defining rule of gravity in Israel-America relations: In any confrontation between president and prime minister, Israel loses. With the United States the superpower and Israel the lonely little guy, its dependence on American friendship is too great. An Israeli prime minster may succeed in tweaking a particular policy, but only by draining the reservoir of presidential goodwill.
So when, as happened Thursday, an Israeli prime minister yells at the American Secretary of State just before a major presidential address, Israel loses. When the prime minister denounces presidential proposals before visiting the president, Israel loses. When the president stews as the prime minister lectures him – albeit eloquently and indirectly – Israel loses. And when the president sits at a joint press appearance with his hands placed protectively over his body and under his chin, telegraphing mistrust, Israel loses.
Once Obama said what he said, Bibi had to say what he said. But Obama said what he said because Bibi was going to say what he wanted to say to Congress. Netanyahu made his ritualistic visit to AIPAC a big deal by accepting the Congressional invitation. Predictably, the New York Times headline “Obama presses Israel to make ‘hard choices’” resulted.
Not all exchanges hurt Israel.
Obama disapproved of delegitimizing Israel, and said the Palestinians must explain how they proposed to work for peace while working with Hamas, whose charter advocates Israel’s destruction. And there is value in the vigorous debate that erupted about what peace can look like, and how to use history as a helpful guideline. Obama believes that to support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, he must free Israelis from today’s status- quo prison, reinforced as it is by complacency and existential fears. That goal explains why he focuses on the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control, yearning for real statehood and full civil liberties. But as America’s most pro-Palestinian president since Jimmy Carter, Obama must also free the Palestinians from their delusional prison, its bars reinforced by lingering longings and deadly hatreds. He must tell them time does not stand still, that they must dream more about their future state rather than deliriously demanding or violently planning a return to 1967 or 1947. Yet Obama’s finger points more easily and wags more vigorously at Israeli caution than Palestinian rejectionism and violence.
The logical starting point in advocating a two-state solution comes by acknowledging that borders shift and populations move, particularly in historic Palestine. Only fools or fanatics claim that borders were ever permanent. We cannot undo history. We must move forward, from 2011, trying to minimize disruptions to populations while maximizing satisfaction on both sides. Rather than trying to freeze one random moment in time, demography and the current status quo should be our guides, tempered by sensitivity, creativity and some history, but not too much. And being realistic entails dealing with the current US administration. In assessing this week’s errors, hopefully Netanyahu will learn not to provoke the president, and that scoring debating points only goes so far.
When Israelis and Americans squabble, Palestinian rejectionists rejoice. This spring’s great outrages are not Obama’s proposals or Netanyahu’s hesitations, but Fatah’s new friend in Hamas, Egypt’s new unreliability as a peace partner, Iran’s continuing rush to nuclear power, and the Arab world’s continuing war against Israel’s existence, aided by the Left’s useful idiots. These common enemies, along with enduring common values, should keep America’s president and Israel’s prime minister cooperating, whatever tactical quibbles may arise.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. 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.