Has President Obama’s reception of PM Netanyahu form a constructive dialogue, a rift, an insult, an honest discussion, a small disagreement among friends and allies, a reaffirmation of the US-Israel strategic relationship? It all depends who you ask, and not that you’re asking, but below I offer a few reflections.
Israelis took objection to a number of points in Obama’s speech.
From an Israeli perspective, Obama gave the Palestinians the crux of what they would presumably receive through negotiations—“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”—at a time when Palestinians are refusing to negotiate.
Two, By adopting the 1967 lines as a US platform, Obama further transformed this position into the opening foray of potential negotiations for Palestinians rather than the end result of a negotiating process.
Three, Palestinians are less likely to rejoin a negotiating process where they will be expected to make their own concessions if they are able to extract Israeli concessions through Obama outside the negotiating process.
Four, in Netanyahu’s perception, as expressed at the join press conference on Friday, a “full” withdrawal to the 1967 lines, even with swaps, is not acceptable since it would leave Israel incapable of properly defending its people. As to the last point, Netanyahu could be posturing in an attempt to reset the middle ground on the issue of borders. But he could also be genuine in expressing Israeli policy while he is in office, which means the US position runs counter to Israeli security interests as Netanyahu perceives them.
At Friday’s press conference, and presumably in the Oval Office, Netanyahu pointed out that Israel’s War of Independence created two refugee problems, as roughly the same amount of Jews and Arabs fled their respective opponents. The President’s speech on Thursday took into account only “the fate of Palestinian refugees.” Meanwhile, the Palestinian demand to “return” these people to Israel along with millions of their descendants is nothing short of demographic destruction from an Israeli point of view. Netanyahu took umbrage that Obama was very specific with what Israel will have to accept as part of a settlement, but did not “state frankly what everyone knows” regarding Palestinian refugees, that they and their descendants will have to remain outside of Israel.
Since these were the issues put forward by Netanyahu at the press conference, we can assume they were the primary sticking points in the Obama-Netanyahu meeting at the Oval Office. We can also assume that there were significant areas of agreement as well, such as on Iran and other matters of security cooperation.
However, the media seized on the points of tension to cover the speech through the lens of a US-Israel rift.
Netanyahu’s press conference did not help with this perception. Netanyahu could have presented the same Israeli positions as points of general agreement rather than disagreement. Obama’s speech had enough positive elements to accomplish this.
For example, Obama stated, “As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security.” Netanyahu could have couched his intention to keep Israeli forces along the Jordanian border within the context of what Obama said above instead of voicing this position as a disagreement with Obama’s insistence on “full” Israeli withdrawal.
Even a full withdrawal is conditional on Palestinian security cooperation. Israel could try to raise the expectations of what is acceptable security cooperation.
While Obama did give credence to the issue of Palestinian refugees, it can be reasonably concluded that the US position does not support a Palestinian “right of return.” Obama’ expressly supported “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.” Netanyahu was fair in pointing out that there was also a Jewish refugee problem, but he could have forcefully agreed with Obama that Israel must remain “a Jewish and democratic state,” which is why Palestinian refugees and their descendants will remain outside of Israel. In other words, the issue of refugees is not one of disagreement, but one of agreement as Israel understands it.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The Palestinians did this in February, when they put forward a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, lifting the language from Secretary Clinton’s recent statements. While the US vetoed the resolution due to its one-sided nature, it was made harder since they were essentially vetoing their own expressed positions. While Netanyahu must be careful not to misconstrue Obama’s words, his same points could have been made using a different tone and approach. Let’s remember, press conferences are for public consumption, and the primary goal is to posture effectively. Netanyahu is one the few Israeli leaders who understand media savvy, so perhaps his focus on setting the record straight was more calculated than I imply. Still, it seems that a different tone would have been more effective.
(By the way, I am not sure how much spin could have salvaged the issue of 1967 lines. However, by voicing the other positions as points of agreement, 1967 lines would have become the only point of obvious contention.)
Finally, Obama gave Netanyahu an easy out. Obama’s language could have been stronger (as it was during his follow-up speech at AIPAC on Sunday) but he did say that the Fatah-Hamas pact is an obstacle to negotiations. The Israelis can now emphasize their agreement with the US that Palestinians are preventing negotiations. Netanyahu did take advantage of this at the press conference.
Hamas rejected the speech outright. Palestinian President Abbas, head of the rival Fatah faction, was disappointed for his own reasons, although chose to withhold public comment.
The Palestinians have not been on the same page as the US for a while now. By brokering a unity deal with Hamas and insisting on declaring Palestinian statehood through the UN, Abbas has sidelined the US.
What explains this seemingly counterproductive pursuit?
Palestinian President Abbas is at an age where he cannot continue to lead much longer, as he himself acknowledged. As a result, he is thinking more about his exit strategy and legacy than about an arduous negotiating process.
With Netanyahu’s government in charge, he figures he cannot maximize Israeli concessions. Besides, a newly resurgent Hamas (a side effect of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in the Egyptian revolution) would make proper negotiations impossible. By ushering a detente with Hamas, he would leave a less divided Palestinian body politic upon his departure.
The declaration of statehood at the UN is meant to embolden Palestinian public opinion and enhance international pressure on Israel at a time when negotiations are not desirable. Palestinians know that real statehood can only come through an accord with Israel, which only the US is in a position to broker, but the symbolic victory at the UN can be achieved now. There is some speculation that Palestinians may seek to invoke the United for Peace resolution by which the UN Security Council is bypassed and a binding resolution is enacted by the General Assembly with the help of Arab and Islamic states. However, this is unlikely to succeed (see in depth analysis by Robbie Sabel here). The ultimate purpose is to strengthen the Palestinian position in the court of public opinion and enhance international standing.
The US is clearly unhappy about this, and Obama’s speech made that point clear. However, Abbas likely figures that US aid will continue unabated, or be replaced by the Europeans in the worst case scenario. As for US-Palestinian diplomatic relations, they will resume where they left off once Palestinians are ready to negotiate. At that time, however, the Palestinians will be in a stronger position vis-a-vis the Israelis.
Netanyahu at joint session of Congress.
As I write this, Netanyahu is addressing the a joint session of Congress. I’m on a train, and will hear the speech only later, but I can presume the following.
I expect that Netanayhu will reiterate Israel’s stance on the 1967 lines, but generally take a positive tone, emphasize close US-Israel ties, and focus on areas of agreement. Congress is perceived as more favorable to Israel than Obama’s Administration has been at times. By focusing on the positive, Netanyahu would separate his disagreement with Obama as one between two leaders rather than one between two nations whose close relationship is defined by mutual trust and cooperation.
Addressing a US Joint Session of Congress is an opportunity few leaders are granted, and Netanyahu is unlikely to have another such opportunity himself. Mere platitudes about close US-Israel ties would waste this opportunity. He has to say something big, which is why I suspect he will unveil his own peace initiative. But even here I wonder what can he say that would add anything new to the conversation. At the very least, he can deflect criticism from the Israeli Left by showing initiative and presenting a plan, however stillborn, rather that merely reacting to events.
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem. Become a Facebook fan. Follow on Twitter.