When writing about President Obama’s speech on Thursday, I got one thing very wrong. I wrote:
“Bibi will not have anything here to fight with Obama about tomorrow.”
Well, that was wrong; but not as much as you might think.
We need to understand what that goal is and what Netanyahu’s reprehensible hubris on Friday after meeting with the President of the United States, was meant to achieve.
We can start with a basic fact: this tumult is not really about Obama’s statement regarding the 1967 borders. This is a contrived controversy, based, to begin with, on a willful distortion of what Obama said.
The President did not call for a return to the 1967 borders. He merely stated what is obvious, what has been American de facto policy all along and the fundamental truth of any two-state solution: that negotiations must start with the 1967 borders, and whatever modifications may be agreed to start from there.
So, what was the purpose of this intentional distortion and elaborate theater by Netanyahu, one which was subsequently lauded and backed by the ultra-right wing Israeli cabinet and a drove of Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle?
In fact, it was a bold, albeit clumsy, gambit by Netanyahu to rework the entire framework of what is generally understood to be the framework for negotiations.
Netanyahu is hoping to re-create the change wrought by George W. Bush with his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon. In that letter, Bush went some distance toward pre-determining the outcome of final status issues by promising Sharon that Israel would not have to go back to the pre-1967 borders and that Palestinian refugees would not be able to return to Israel.
Everyone knew that was going to be the American vision of resolving the conflict, but by stating it publicly, Bush essentially made those the new starting points for any talks, effectively giving away much of what the Palestinian Authority intended to bargain with.
Netanyahu would like Obama to reaffirm those points and take them off the table, and also state unequivocally that there will be no talks with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
Netanyahu is well aware what such a statement from Obama would mean: the end of any possibility of peace talks, the end of even the meager American words objecting to settlement growth and a growing division between Israel and the US on one hand and Europe and the rest of the Quartet partners on the other.
That’s why Obama doesn’t want to do these things. So, Netanyahu went on global television and ordered him to do so.
That sounds absurd, but that’s what he did. Consider Bibi’s words:
“…while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these lines are indefensible, because they don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years… So we can’t go back to those indefensible lines, and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan. I discussed this with the president. I think that we understand that Israel has certain security requirements that will have to come into place in any deal that we make.”
Let’s translate that: Mr. President, I heard every word you said yesterday, and screw you, we are going to keep our settlements and the Jordan Valley. I’ve told you that’s what’s going to happen, so deal with it. Go tell the Palestinians that the land that is called Area A and some of Area B will have to do for their state.”
On Hamas, Obama has not changed his stance; he repeated that he expects Hamas to renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by past agreements. Obama, recognizing what many Israeli right-wingers have said – that a deal with half the Palestinians would never hold anyway – left a door open to the Palestinians by saying “…the Palestinians are going to have to answer some very difficult questions about this agreement that’s been made between Fatah and Hamas.”
That’s not good enough for Bibi.
“…[This] echoes something the president just said, and that is that Israel cannot negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas… And Hamas has just attacked you, Mr. President, and the United States for ridding the world of bin Laden. So Israel obviously cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the Palestinian version of al-Qaida…I think President Abbas has a simple choice. He has to decide if he negotiates or keeps his pact with Hamas, or makes peace with Israel. And I — I can only express what I said to you just now: that I hope he makes the choice, the right choice, of choosing peace with Israel.”
Translation: “The door you left open will be slammed shut. If you try to open it again, you will be painted as an appeaser of terrorism, and it will be no problem to deceive Americans about the great differences between Hamas and al-Qaeda. Don’t think for a minute that your killing bin Laden is going to change this. I will give the Palestinians a choice—either engage in a peace process that excludes a major portion of the Palestinian polity, thus rendering it insubstantial, or don’t have one at all.”
This, of course, frees Netanyahu from ever being threatened with real peace.
And then the real topper, the refugees. Bibi said:
“…the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state but certainly not in the borders of Israel…the Palestinians come to us and they say to Israel: accept the grandchildren, really, and the great-grandchildren of these refugees, thereby wiping out Israel’s future as a Jewish state. So that’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly, it’s not going to happen.”
Translation: “Barack, be a good boy and tell the Palestinians that this is no longer a final status issue and it has already been pre-determined. After all, if refugees will not come back to Israel and this is determined before talks, there’s nothing to talk about. We will not have to compensate them for something that is not negotiable anyway, and what they do with their refugees is not our concern if they’re not going to come back to Israel. Now go tell them that.”
Obama changed nothing in his statement. He simply put forth a point more clearly than has been done in the past that is fundamental to a two-state solution. Here’s what George W. Bush said in 2005:
“Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to. A viable two-state solution must ensure contiguity of the West Bank, and a state of scattered territories will not work. There must also be meaningful linkages between the West Bank and Gaza. This is the position of the United States today, it will be the position of the United States at the time of final status negotiations.”
Obama said nothing different in substance. Indeed, he said substantially less than this on Thursday.
So, with a foreign leader sitting in the Oval Office and publicly telling the President of the United States what to do, being condescending and arrogant toward him, naturally, Congressional leaders would express their outrage, right?
Hell, no, not on the best day, and certainly not on the eve of their annual hajj to the AIPAC conference.
But they will blast their own President and support that foreign leader against not only the President, but against clear US interests that have been repeatedly articulated by diplomats and military leaders who, unlike Congress members, actually have some familiarity with Israel, the Palestinians and the tactical and diplomatic situation on the ground.
The Republicans started, and this is no surprise. The party that once held to realist, albeit selfish and imperialistic, views of foreign policy now cares nothing about its own country if by betraying it they can score political points for themselves.
But then came the Democrats as well, falling over themselves to blast the most prominent member of their own party.
So, in closing, here is a selection of some comments by these sycophantic and clueless members of Congress, and other notable figures on the American political scene.
Mitt Romney: “President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” Romney said. “He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace. He has also violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends.”
Michele Bachmann: “Today President Barack Obama has again indicated that his policy towards Israel is to blame Israel first. In a shocking display of betrayal towards our ally, President Obama is now calling on Israel to give up yet more land and return to its 1967 borders. If there is anything that has been proven, the policy of land-for-peace has meant that Israel has continually had to give away increasing amounts of its land and decrease its size. In exchange, it still has not known security. President Obama wants to further this policy by putting Israel in a very vulnerable position with borders that would be extremely difficult to defend. “
Orrin Hatch: “Rather than stand by Israel against consistent unprovoked aggression by longtime supporters of terrorism, President Obama is rewarding those who threaten Israel’s very right to exist.”
Newt Gingrich: “Congress in the next week should pass resolutions in the House and Senate condemning the president setting the 1967 lines.”
Tim Pawlenty: “President Obama’s insistence on a return to the 1967 borders is a mistaken and very dangerous demand. To send a signal to the Palestinians that America will increase its demands on our ally Israel, on the heels of the Palestinian Authority’s agreement with the Hamas terrorist organization, is a disaster waiting to happen”
One prominent Democrat, Howard Berman, the leading minority member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs did defend the President.
Howard Berman: “It has been my expectation for many years, dating to the end of the Clinton Administration, that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would involve a border that is close to that of 1967 but with agreed upon land swaps. That is fully consistent with Israel’s right to have defensible borders and to retain its settlement blocs, positions for which there is overwhelming support in Washington.”
But Berman was in the minority.
Joe Lieberman (not a Democrat, but an Independent generally counted as part of the Democratic bloc in the Senate, but a major hawk on Israel): “In particular, the President’s remarks have revived and exacerbated fears in Israel about the commitment and understanding of this Administration with regard to their unique security situation. The fact is, while the exciting and hopeful new reality in the Arab world is the Arab spring, the newest reality in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not hopeful. It is the threatening new unity government between the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, a group which the U.S. government has long designated as terrorist because it is committed to violence and the destruction of Israel.”
Steve Rothman, usually a staunch Obama backer: “It is important to remember that a full return to the 1967 borders will be indefensible for Israel and that talking with terrorists who want to destroy Israel is a non-starter.”
Eliot Engel: “The 1967 armistice lines were simply not defensible, and Israel must not be made to return to them.”
Ted Deutsch: Israel cannot be expected to make any territorial concessions that do not acknowledge the reality on the ground. The 1967 borders are indefensible. References to ‘land swaps’ must mean that major Israeli population areas in the post-Six Day War territory, including the Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem, will forever continue to be a part of the Jewish state of Israel.”
Shelly Berkley (a Democrat, but possibly the most hawkish one in the House on Israel, and certainly among the most ignorant): “”I am also deeply concerned by any calls for Israel to return to the armistice line that existed before 1967. That line left Israel far too vulnerable to outside attack, and without access to many of the Jewish holy sites on the other side of the line. Past experience demonstrates that when the Arabs have controlled the Jewish holy sites they have not permitted access to Jews. “
And, it should be noted, that these statements have come in the wake of praise for Obama’s speech from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.