As cloudy as ever

Why Washington’s speeches failed to move the ‘streets’

US Congresspeople shake hands with Netanyahu 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Stelios Varias)
US Congresspeople shake hands with Netanyahu 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stelios Varias)
Five speeches and 29 Congressional standing Os later, the world is still searching for progress amid the rhetoric. Although President Barack Obama (two speeches) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (three speeches including one in Jerusalem) took to the podiums with minimal expectations, hope held out on the streets of Israel and the Palestinian territories through the final dissipation of applause echoing through the House chamber that the conventional wisdoms would be defied and a robust olive branch would be revealed.
To be fair, the sixth speech – the one not made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – should figure into the mix if “what coulda’ been” is the focus. Still, one should not be quick in dismissing this past week as insignificant. A lot has transpired. Just not what many had hoped.
It is axiomatic in the Middle East that progress is inversely proportional to visibility. The real breakthroughs are forged behind closed doors and revealed to the public as faits accomplis. Open events, such as major addresses, require great scrutiny to uncover consequences – good and bad, short and long-term. So once the high-profile, public route was invoked, it became fair game to ask whether the Israeli and Palestinian streets felt any closer to peace – or security – following the talkfest. Apparently not. But that doesn’t mean the week was not valuable.
Take, for instance, the US-Israel relationship. Since Obama and Netanyahu took power, their personal relationship, often described from unsettled to tempestuous and worse, has frequently stolen attention from the issues. In this context, the past week was cathartic. After Obama sent chills throughout the Jewish state with his “Cairo II” speech, the streets echoed a sense of unraveling of the state amid the feeling that its prime minister had been outmaneuvered. When Obama assuaged those fears in his second speech, a belief emerged across Israel’s political boundaries that Netanyahu needed to respond with a bold and unambiguous gesture that would stymie Israel’s harshest critics. The time was ripe. But it never came.
Instead, the president and the prime minister clearly articulated their respective positions, offered clarifications and course corrections, and demonstrated the realities and limitations that this unique international alliance sets in play vis-à-vis the peace process. It was a valuable exercise; and all was witnessed by a global audience. The US-Israel chemistry was showcased, but the “magic moment” was missed. The prime minister would fly home atop a surge in the polls so great that it drowned out cautious punditry warning of a future price to pay for the momentary elation. Both sides remained firmly perched in their favorite trees, each leader refusing to climb down in order to sit together, but each taking in the demonstrative realities of the day.
Like the matter of Hamas sitting in a Palestinian unity government. A Palestinian entrepreneur told The Media Line she felt it was “arrogant” for the US and Israel to dictate who is an appropriate government partner among Palestinians. But as long as Hamas remains on the American list of terrorist organizations, the unity government is off-limits by virtue of US law. So while some scenarios are being suggested in which the administration acts to modify that reality in order to embrace the new government, last week’s events should disabuse anyone of the belief that the administration could even consider removing Hamas from the terror list.
Even before the first speech, the Palestinian strategic September gambit weighed heavily on both streets. If unsuccessful in its original intent to compel Israeli concessions on the US-brokered track, the unquestionable resonance that the plan to ask the United Nations to sanction statehood in September is enjoying remains unnerving to Israelis.
Yair, a former military officer, told The Media Line that within his right-leaning circle of friends lurks the fear that unless Netanyahu acts now to secure the best deal he can, his successor will give away the farm.
“Bibi should know the price of peace,” he said. “And we will lose if he doesn’t act now.”
Post-speechmaking, Netanyahu’s red lines and Obama’s admonitions, nothing has changed. In fact, the Obama and Netanyahu speeches were probably the final factors convincing Palestinian leadership to push on with their September plans.
Nimir Khalouf, former head of the WAFA news agency, summed up the perspective on the street when he explained that Palestinians prefer to get back to negotiations with clear goals and timetables.
“If America and Europe fail to push for a return to negotiations,” he said, “the only alternative left is the United Nations.”
The same unabashed warmth on the part of Congress that so buoyed Israelis and sent Netanyahu’s approval soaring reinforced to the Palestinian street the commonly- held belief that the US-Israel relationship leaves no room for them and that their fortunes are better pursued before a more friendly and sympathetic crowd in Turtle Bay.
After the speeches, Israel’s sense of doom has largely dissipated and Palestinian determination at pursuing the UN option has been empowered. Nothing has changed on the ground, and the future remains as cloudy as it was before speeches. As exciting as the sense of theater was to watch, many wish the leaders would retreat behind closed doors, where progress is at least possible.
And now that the politicians have had their opportunities to play to the home crowd and impress each other with their relative strengths, some are suggesting that it’s time for Obama to come to the region and stroll both sides of the streets – perhaps joined by each leader viewing his opposite’s position: Prime Minister Netanyahu in the West Bank and President Abbas in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The writer is president and CEO of The Media Line, an American news agency specializing in coverage of the Middle East. Felice–