The illusions, delusions and fantasies surrounding events in the Middle East never cease to amaze.
The controversy over President Obama’s Middle East speech the latest bizarre development, with Prime Minister Netanyahu and commentators like Dore Gold and Tim Pawlenty denouncing the President’s statement that the 1967 borders (which were actually the ceasefire lines dating back to the 1948-49 war) should be the basis of negotiations for the boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians today. Mitt Romney said President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus.
On substantive grounds, it is hard to see what Obama’s critics have in mind. The US position is and has always been that the 1967 borders are the starting point for negotiations. UN Security Council Resolution 242, the basis for all negotiations on this question since it was passed in 1967, makes that very plain — although that resolution does not demand an Israeli withdrawal from all of the territory it conquered in the war. President Bush never deviated from this position; neither has President Obama. Israeli prime ministers including Likud prime ministers like Ehud Olmert have accepted this for years. This is standard diplospeak boilerplate. It is a non-statement, a platitude, even a bromide.
It is almost unthinkable that an American president would take a different position. It is not just because this would mean a break with thirty years of bipartisan US consensus and with the entire world community. There is also a practical reason. Negotiations have to start with something; they have to have a reference point. The armistice lines (while never recognized as an international boundary) are the logical and really the only place to start.
But starting point is not ending point. The United States for many years has tacitly and occasionally explicitly acknowledged that large settlements in the Jerusalem region will likely be part of Israel when the final boundaries are drawn, and the US also agrees (and under President Obama continues to agree) with Israel that there are certain cases where the 1949 lines must be redrawn to enhance Israel’s security. However, the US position — under President Bush just as much as under President Obama — has been and remains that any departures from the old boundaries will have to be negotiated, and this will involve exchanges of territory rather than simple unilateral concessions from one side. Both Israel and the future Palestinian state will give up and gain territory if and when the old armistice lines are converted into an international boundary.
This is not, repeat not a big deal. To say that the boundaries in a final settlement will have to be accepted by the two parties is to practice the sport of tautology. To get an agreement, the two sides will have to agree. If the two sides do not agree about boundaries, there will be no agreement. President Obama’s boundary statement boils down to the assertion that the two sides must agree on what their boundaries will actually be and that the US will support any territorial agreement the two sides want to make.
So why are the Israelis so angry about Obama’s statement? And why are so many US allies in Europe and elsewhere who want the US to take a hard line with Israel welcoming the President’s speech?
Symbolism and politics.
Barack Obama with Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House (Wikimedia)
On the level of symbolism, Prime Minister Netanyahu was, one suspects, both insulted and infuriated that President Obama chose to make this announcement shortly before meeting with the Israeli leader. By making the speech before Netanyahu’s arrival, President Obama either intentionally or unintentionally sent a message that the Israeli Prime Minister’s views don’t matter much. Had the same speech come after the Netanyahu meeting, the reaction would probably have been more muted — and more positive.
Much of the small change of the relationship between Israel and the United States is about symbolism. When things are going well, Israeli prime ministers and American presidents help each other look good. At a deeper level, Israel’s refusal to deal with anybody except the United States on issues of war and peace reinforces America’s unique power position in the region.
The timing rather than the content of President Obama’s Middle East speech challenged this basic dimension of US-Israel relations; Netanyahu responded.
And Netanyahu isn’t just reacting to a personal slight. He is reacting because the Israelis do not like to be surprised by American statements — and they fear that this will be only the first of many surprises that President Obama plans to spring once the peace talks are under way. Past American administrations have had an understanding with Israel that the US would not make proposals or important announcements before consulting with Israel. This speech, precisely because it restated longstanding policy, may not technically breach that understanding — but that doesn’t make the change any more welcome to the Israelis.
Israeli politics also come into play. The apparent demotion of Netanyahu from partner to object of American lectures wounded Netanyahu at home. If the Prime Minister has lost the ability to influence American policy making, some Israelis may reason, perhaps the Jewish state needs a leader better able to work with Israel’s most important ally. A strong reaction now, Netanyahu and Company probably think, may reduce the chances of more consequential announcements down the road and bolster Netanyahu’s credentials as a strong leader at home. Attacking Obama and trumpeting his own undying determination to keep Israel secure is a way for Netanyahu to make up any lost ground in Israeli politics.
There are other logical motives for Netanyahu’s attacks. One is, simply, why not? Those who don’t ask don’t get. Why wouldn’t an Israeli Prime Minister ask for more support from the United States on vital issues of national security? You’ve got the apple pie; why not ask for some ice cream as well? And if by chance you get the ice cream, ask for some sprinkles on top — and what about the whipped cream? Unfortunately, many leaders around the world (and not a few politicians at home) think Obama can be rolled. So they push.
Netanyahu also thinks he doesn’t owe President Obama any favors. President Obama’s earlier Middle East diplomacy tried to force Netanyahu into concessions he didn’t want to make and Washington blamed the resulting chaos on Netanyahu’s stubborness; ever since then Netanyahu has enjoyed making Obama pay and pay again for this blunder.
Why Pick The Fight?
So if timing rather than substance was the issue, why did President Obama choose to do things this way? Wait a week, consult a bit with Netanyahu, and President Obama could have given the same speech without the fireworks. Why court trouble?
Some of the President’s most severe critics will answer that sheer incompetence caused him to mess up the timing and create an unnecessary eruption. There is so much incompetence in this world of ours that the explanation should never be discounted, but there are some other clear and compelling reasons why the White House might actually welcome a public Israeli hissy fit.
It is important to grasp something that many commentators, puzzled and distracted by the buzz, have missed: this was by any standards a very, very pro-Israel speech. It offered far stronger backing for core Israeli positions than any other speech this President has given. More, it came just as the Obama official widely seen as most sympathetic to the Palestinian position (George Mitchell) stepped down, leaving Dennis Ross — widely seen as more sympathetic to Israel — on top. From a Palestinian point of view, it was a bitter disappointment. President Obama stressed that he does not support the Palestinian plan to have the UN declare Palestine a state in the fall, and that the US will work to block that strategy and resist efforts to isolate Israel. That is a very clear statement of policy and it is one that he didn’t have to take at this time. It is a significant pro-Israel move by the White House.
The President also made clear that Hamas needs to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist before the US will accept Hamas as a negotiating partner. That was not a shift in policy, and it is not particularly surprising given Hamas’ condemnation of the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Clearly, Hamas is not particularly interested in talking to the US at this time and is doing everything possible to nail the door shut. Still, the clarity of the President’s words on this topic represent an attempt to reassure Israel about its American support.
And in another major concession to Israel, the President did not mention the condition that he once declared essential to the resumption of peace talks: a total settlement freeze. This was his one innovation in the peace process, President Obama’s highly touted original contribution; it was an embarrassing flop and he now just wants it to go quietly away.
No doubt the core pro-Israel and pro-democracy elements of the speech are why distinguished conservative writers and thinkers like Victor Davis Hanson and my old CFR colleague Max Boot have dismissed the claims that Obama threw Israel under the bus. This is perhaps also why ADL leader (and leading pro-Israel figure) Abe Foxman didn’t object to the perfunctory and formalistic invocation of the 1967 ‘frontiers’. No doubt this is also why Jeffrey Goldberg recognized the speech as pro-Israel and cites a long list of conservative, pro-Zionist voices who agree.
Given that Obama is making a strategic shift away from his old Middle East policy (get tough on Israel and sweet-talk the Iranians, Syrians and Palestinians to get them on side), I suspect that the White House welcomes Netanyahu’s attacks. They help rather than hurts — especially among American Jews.
Virtually all Arabs, most Europeans and a surprising number of Americans who ought to know better carry a delusional and ultimately anti-Semitic stereotype around in their heads: that American Jews as a bloc are hard line pro-Likud Zionists; that those Jews ruthlessly and relentlessly use their vast and hidden media power to shape US opinion on the Middle East; and that the irresistible financial might of the united Jewish Israel lobby buys Congressional acceptance of their evil designs.
I suppose there is a way that someone could believe all these things and not be a card carrying anti-Semite, but I am not ingenious enough to find it. This is a racist and evil set of beliefs; those who hold them should be ashamed of themselves, and these deserve to be mocked and scorned at every possible opportunity.
These beliefs are also delusional and soft-headed. If American Jews were as powerful as the anti-Semites think, US policy toward Israel would look much more, well, European. The overwhelming majority of American Jews of all income groups are more liberal about US-Israel relations than much of the gentile population. This is true of the almost 80 percent of American Jews who voted for the President, most of whom continue to support him today; it is even more true among the wealthy liberal Jews who have been among President Obama’s strongest backers. Think of Jewish donors in Hollywood, liberal Jewish writers for the mainstream media, and socially liberal Jews working on Wall Street: what do most of these people think of Netanyahu?
Most of the people who object to any talk of the 1967 borders are closer to Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity than to Rahm Emanuel, Barbra Streisand, Hendrick Herzberg and George Soros. The majority of American Jews dislike Netanyahu and disapprove of continuing Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The driving force pushing a super-hawkish, pro-Likud American foreign policy in the Middle East comes from gentile conservatives rather than from the predominantly liberal and instinctively dovish American Jewish community. The O’Reilly hawks never were and never will be Obama supporters; let them rage, the President presumably reasons as he jets to more high profile fundraisers where liberal Jewish backers, energized by his ‘courage’ on the Middle East, will help him reach the $1 billion mark for the re-election campaign.
From President Obama’s point of view, criticism over the boundary issue is the gift that keeps on giving. If George W. Bush had given this speech, European political leaders would be up in arms about America’s outrageous and one-sided support for Israel. But when Obama gave it, Europeans swooned for joy. At last, an American President with the guts to stand up to those all-controlling, all-manipulating Jews!
This would be funny if it weren’t so ugly and sad, but from the White House point of view it is useful. Whether by luck or design, the often fumble-fingered White House has found a way to force its enemies and opponents into doing its job. Much as the ‘birther’ controversy discredited some Obama critics and turned them into self-parodying loons (yes, Donald Trump, I mean you), so the bitterest critics of Obama’s Middle East speech are advancing his agenda. By reacting to a pro-Israel speech seasoned with platitudinous and meaningless sweeteners tossed to the Palestinians as if it were a major pro-Arab shift in American foreign policy, Obama’s critics in Israel and the US are helping him relaunch his peace efforts.
The volcanic response to the speech helps the White House in other ways. The attention to Obama’s alleged pro-Palestinian shift has taken attention away from the truly controversial elements of the President’s speech: the harsh rhetoric towards Syria and Iran, and the open breach with Saudi Arabia over the crackdown in Bahrain and indeed over the future political direction of the Middle East. The relative absence of attention on these points is helping the Saudis swallow their anger over the rhetoric about Bahrain and democracy as they focus more constructively on the signs that the president at long last is coming around to their point of view on Iran. The commentariat’s obsession over the not-news border declaration also reduced what might well have been a major domestic and international brouhaha over the President’s references to Iraq as a model of democratic development that the rest of the region should emulate. For a President facing an increasingly tough re-election fight, a speech about how the war in Iraq might have important and positive results that could affect the whole region is probably not the best message to send to the base.
But if the White House has rather neatly finessed the politics of the moment, it is still a long way from managing the turbulence in the Middle East. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will almost certainly not come on Obama’s watch; he can forget about peace — he will be lucky if he can get a peace process of some kind back on track. The economic meltdown in Egypt darkens prospects for the Arab spring. President Obama’s endorsement of the democratic revolutions could come back to haunt him if the ultimate beneficiaries of the revolution are the radicals. The death spiral of America’s Pakistan policy continues to accelerate. The American response to the Syrian turmoil still looks weak and unconvincing given the stakes. The engagement in Libya (“days not weeks” said our Prognosticator-in-chief) has stretched out into months with no end, and no democratic alternative in view. It is still true that American interests are served by a peace process, almost any peace process, while Israel would prefer to put the whole thing off for a while.
The criticism and the doubts coming from the hawkish pro-Israel camp at the moment have much more to do with doubts about Obama himself than with anything he said this week. He is like a man who left his wife at home for a night on the town with another woman. The woman spent all his money, mocked him in front of her friends, and turned him down flat when e asked her to share a hotel room. Now he’s come home, sincerely sorry he ever tried to stray. The man is ready to make up and move on; not so the wife. She is angry and embarrassed; she doesn’t trust him and she is not about to let him have a quiet night’s rest. He’s going to have a hard time for a while as he tries to make it up to her without letting all the neighbors think he’s a hen-pecked wuss. I see a lot of ‘honey-do’ in his future, a lot of concessions in ours.
Having the world think Obama is a brave Jew-defying President wrestling the almighty lobby even as he shifts policy back toward the approaches taken by his immediate Republican and Democratic predecessors is a best-case outcome for President Obama at this point. Luckily for him, that looks like the way things are going — and the more heat he gets from the right the more likely it is that the world will keep its eyes fixed on his non-existent contest with the awesome but illusory Elders of Zion.