Benjamin Netanyahu seemed last week to have come to Washington to party like it’s 1998. That was the year he came to the U.S. as a rejectionist Israeli prime minister elected on the promise of burying the Oslo Accords, and sought to make an end-run around President Bill Clinton by talking over his head to a joint session of both houses of Congress, arranged by his pal and then-House Speaker New Gingrich. (Netanyahu was still forced to make some concessions to Yasser Arafat in the Wye River Accords, and Israeli voters, perhaps spooked by the spectacle of their leader tangling openly with the leader of the country that has always been Israel’s most important friend — voted him out of office in 1999.)
Perhaps aware that he’s unlikely to lose his job in today’s Israeli political climate by clashing with President Barack Obama — and perhaps believing that by painting Obama as an enemy of Israel he can help put a more indulgent president in the White House in 2013 — Netanyahu last Thursday picked a calculated fight with the White House. But President Obama on Sunday tried to turn the tables by warning that the international situation was rapidly changing to Israel’s disadvantage, and sticking to the script of blaming the Palestinians for the absence of a peace agreement was unlikely to convince a world grown impatient after two decades of failed peacemaking.
When Obama, in a Middle East policy speech last Thursday that echoed many of Israel’s own positions, repeated what has long been conventional wisdom in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — that a two-state solution would be based on the 1967 border with “mutually agreed land swaps” — Netanyahu threw a hissy fit, complaining that these borders were “indefensible” and announcing that he “expected” Obama to change his tune.
Republican presidential hopefuls took Netanyahu’s cue to pile on Obama. Governor Tim Pawlenty said Obama had “thrown Israel under a bus”. Gingrich said Obama’s ideas were “dangerous” and Sara Palin called him a “temporary leader”.
But when Obama spoke Sunday at the Israel lobbying organization AIPAC, he had a blunt message: The U.S. will continue to back Israel to the hilt, but that won’t be enough to reverse Israel’s slide into international pariah status unless it manages to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu could, no doubt, easily negotiate a peace treaty with Pawlenty or Gingrich or Palin in the course of an afternoon, but if he’s incapable of doing what’s necessary to conclude a deal with Palestinians, then no amount of congressional support is going to do anything for Israel’s international position.
No matter how much of Capitol Hill Netanyahu manages to convince that it is the Palestinians that represent the main obstacle to peace, Obama seemed to be warning, he’ll have a tough time convincing anybody in the rest of the world of his position.
In an international context, U.S. influence today is nothing close to what it was in 1998, for example. That much ought to have been clear in February when the U.S. vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning ongoing Israeli settlement construction. Washington found itself voting against every one of its allies on the Council, the likes of France, Germany and Britain simply not prepared to protect the Israelis from international condemnation of ongoing activity that even Obama himself has repeatedly deemed illegitimate. Washington couldn’t persuade them even to abstain on the basis that such a vote might somehow imperil “the peace process,” because there simply was no peace process worth speaking of — the Palestinians refusal to return to the negotiating table until Israel stopped settlement construction.
Never short on chutzpah, Netanyahu called Israel’s closest friend in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to complain about Germany’s vote on the settlements resolution. “How dare you?” Merkel responded, according to an account of the conversation released by her aides to the Israeli media. “You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”
So while Obama threw the AIPAC audience plenty of red meat in terms of backing Israeli security demands, insisting that Hamas recognize Israel before any negotiations with it, confronting Iran and promising to fight “any attempt to de-legitimize the State of Israel” he also seemed to be making clear that none of this would get Israel out of the diplomatic corner into which it was painting itself through a kind of tread-water-and-blame-the-other-guy approach.
“No matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option,” Obama warned. “The status quo is unsustainable.” That, said the President, is why he’d made clear that Israel would have to be prepared to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 borders — even if the substance of those negotiations was precisely over delineating the territorial swaps from that starting point that would accommodate both sides needs.
His main message, though, was that Netanyahu doesn’t have the time he seems to believe he has to tread water. “I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a President preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy,” Obama said, noting the domestic political risk he was in a public disagreement with Israel. “But I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination.”
Obama repeated familiar warnings about Israel losing its “Jewish and democratic” character if it maintained the occupation; that the spread of technology made it more difficult to defend Israel in the absence of peace agreements, and perhaps most importantly, that “a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region.”
“A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.
“And just as the context has changed in the Middle East, so too has it been changing in the international community over the last several years. There’s a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations. They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one, not just in the Arab World — in Latin America, in Asia, and in Europe. And that impatience is growing, and it’s already manifesting itself in capitals around the world.
“And those are the facts.”
While the U.S. would stand by Israel unconditionally through thick and thin, he warned that “the march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations –- will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative. And for us to have leverage with the Palestinians, to have leverage with the Arab States and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success. And so, in advance of a five-day trip to Europe in which the Middle East will be a topic of acute interest, I chose to speak about what peace will require.”
And there’s the rub: Netanyahu until now has given the United States and friends of Israel in Europe nothing to work with — no set of offers that has tempted even those Palestinians most committed to negotiations to get back to the table with him — in their efforts to halt Israel’s slide into international isolation. That slide is likely to escalate sharply if the Palestinians embrace the unarmed defiance tactics of the Arab Spring, and if they ask the UN to rule on the parameters of a two-state solution. And, Obama seemed to be warning at AIPAC, like it or not, the only way for Netanyahu to reverse that momentum in the wider international community (U.S. exempted) is to make offers bold enough to tempt Abbas bake to the table.
Netanyahu has fashioned his entire political career out of saying no to the peace plans of others – no to Rabin’s Oslo Accords; no, even, to Sharon’s pullout from Gaza; no to Obama’s call for a solution based on 1967 borders.
While he’s finally declared himself committed to a two-state solutoin, Netanyahu has never publicly spelled out just what he means by that. And by all accounts, during the brief encounters between his negotiators and those of Abbas before talks collapsed after just one month last year, he wasn’t offering anything they’d deem acceptable. So, as the Israeli leader prepares for another love-fest in Congress on Tuesday, Obama is tapping his watch. And reminding Netanyahu that no matter how persuasive Eric Cantor or Steny Hoyer find his arguments, it’s the Palestinians he’ll have to convince of his peacemaking credentials he’s to reverse the precipitous decline in Israel’s diplomatic position.