Bibi’s Blunder: The Mideast’s Mr. No
05/22/2011 - 13:49
Gary Rosenblatt

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had an excellent response to President Obama’s major speech on the Arab world and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But it came two days too late, and the net result is another hasbara disaster for Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said on Saturday that Obama had “shown his commitment to Israel’s security, both in word and deed,” in Thursday’s Presidential speech, adding: “We are working with the administration to achieve common goals.”

Why couldn’t he have said that on Thursday, instead of immediately rejecting Obama’s views on moving peace talks forward?

Surely Netanyahu understood that with the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions as wide as they are now, the Obama speech was not going to make a practical difference. The Palestinians are determined to push for statehood at the UN in September.

The President’s effort to derail that effort was not enough to get them back to the negotiating table that they left last fall.

Why, then, didn’t Bibi call the Palestinians’ bluff by welcoming the President’s speech as a good starting point for peace talks – the Israeli leader wasn’t obligated to embrace every aspect of the speech – and put the onus on Abbas and Co. to resume discussions?

Instead, the prime minister was so quick to assert that Israel could never abide by the pre-1967 borders that he appears to the world as the stumbling block to progress.

The one explanation that makes sense to me is that Bibi wasn’t trying to persuade world opinion with his tough stance. Rather, he was playing to what he considers his most important audience: the Israeli public, and more specifically his political rivals on the right, chiefly Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Given the premise that all Israeli politics is local, it makes sense that Bibi wanted to prove to his core constituents that he has what it takes to defy the President of the United States.

There were more than a few disturbing elements to Obama’s speech. His view of the Arab Spring was so focused on the positive intentions of the young Facebook crowd in Egypt that he did not address the growing worries over a future Muslim Brotherhood government. He made no mention of Saudi Arabia, no doubt because American support for that autocratic government did not fit the themes the president was stressing. And on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he made the case that discussions on Jerusalem and the Palestinian insistence on the right of return for refugees come only after the resolution of borders and security. So there would be two stages to negotiations, making Israel all the more vulnerable.

(Ari Shavit, writing in the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz, said that in offering that sequence, “Obama presented Israel with a suicidal proposition: an interim agreement based on 1967 borders.” But Shavit concluded that the “egregious error” was “an honest mistake” on Obama’s part and can be “easily corrected.”)

That may be wishful thinking, but lost in the controversy were the many positive aspects for Israel of the Obama speech, most notably adopting Bibi’s principle that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state and that a future Palestine would be a demilitarized state. It also condemned Hamas and the delegitimization campaign, as well as the effort to establish a Palestinian state at the UN this fall. And it did not mention settlement construction.

Unfortunately, Bibi’s response – asserting that the pre-`67 borders were “indefensible” without acknowledging Obama’s reference to land swaps – echoed the famous resolution of the Arab League summit following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Known as “The Three No’s” – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel – they indicated to the world the Arabs’ refusal to accept the reality of a Jewish state in the region.

The final communiqué of the summit insisted on the Palestinians’ right to all of Palestine and commitment to destroy the State of Israel.

There are those who say the Palestinians’ intentions have not changed. But Bibi didn’t give the world a chance to see that Abbas and his new partner, Hamas, barely able to talk to each other, are hardly prepared to negotiate with Israel.

Bibi’s swift and blunt rejection of Obama’s plan set the two leaders on a confrontational path that only later the prime minister backed away from, saying their differences had been overblown. But first impressions last the longest, and what the White House, the international community and the media picked up on this week was that Israel is saying “no” to the U.S. plan.

The good news or bad news, depending on your Mideast politics, is that Obama made no mention of any new effort to restart the troubled and long delayed negotiations, leaving the impression that he is turning his attention to other world problems.

All the more reason why Bibi should have responded positively to the speech instead of reinforcing his image that he rather than Abbas is the Mideast’s Mr. No.

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Will those of you who are so critical of Obama, please explain to me what Israel will do when there is an Arab majority? Is the plan to forcibly evict them from the West Bank?

I'm with President Obama on this one (as are people as ideologically different as Lou Dobbs, Abe Foxman, Eliot Spitzer, James Fallows, Jeffrey Goldberg). Happy for Obama that he got a warm welcome in Ireland after being dissed by Bibi. I guess it's good for President Obama that he has other allies around the world. Who exactly are Bibi's other allies/patrons? By the way, as Andrew Sullivan pointed out today, Bibi had already signed on to a joint statement with Sec. of State Clinton in November 2010 with the same exact language about 1967 borders with agreed on land swaps so that whole hissy fit was an act. Very statesmanlike. Not.

"They all had the wisdom to know that you make peace with your enemies."

This idea is not wisdom, it is a lame cliche which falls apart the minute you examine it. IF it makes sense to make peace, your enemies are the ones you make it with, by definition. But if they are still your enemy "making peace" = "surrender." Also by definition.

And all those Jewish leaders you mention were smart enough to know that. Except Olmert, the worst PM Israel ever had. Telling that you speak positively of him.

"...Bibi wasn’t trying to persuade world opinion with his tough stance. Rather, he was playing to what he considers his most important audience: the Israeli public, and more specifically his political rivals on the right, chiefly Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman...."

Even more so than his Right in Israel, Bibi was playing to the American public, and in that he succeeded admirably. Also to American Jewish leaders, and if Obama's AIPAC performance is anything to go by, Netanyahu succeeded there too. The CiC is in charge of foreign policy, but Congress holds the purse and the direct will of the citizens, who can influence their Congresspeople on a day-to-day basis. Being embedded in the ultra-liberal NYC Jewish community, you can't see what Bibi's calm laying out of the issues did for Israel and what Obama's body language did to himself. The best way to reduce Obama's power is for Bibi to drop by the USA every 6 months or so.

It's great that Israel's PM isn't even trying to court "world opinion." World opinion will change when israel stops sucking up to it.

Obama also said "contiguous Palestinian State" and no one is calling him on that. Someone should draw a map of his idea of israel, based on his speech. it would be very revealing.

Mr. Rosenblatt,
Can't agree with you on this one. I am very tired of politicians who say things for the sake of appearances, that aren't true, and put off tough choices for later. I think most Americans are tired, too. Politicians who chronically say what their audience wants to hear, ultimately fail in their obligation to provide their constituents with true leadership. You said, 'Why, then, didn’t Bibi call the Palestinians’ bluff by welcoming the President’s speech as a good starting point for peace talks – the Israeli leader wasn’t obligated to embrace every aspect of the speech – and put the onus on Abbas and Co. to resume discussions?'
Allow me tell a story I heard from my mother, a holocaust survivor. The Nazis knocked on her door in 1938 and told her she had 24 hours to leave. She said to her father-in-law, I'm leaving Austria with my son. Her father-in-law disagreed with her decision, saying that she was over-reacting and that Hitler was just bluffing. You can guess the end of the story. She survived with my older brother, eventually coming to America, and bore a second son who is me. I never met my mothers' in-laws. They were taken away by the Nazis to the death camps. They were among the millions who thought Hitler was just bluffing.
The moral of the story is that anti-semites who threaten Jews with extermination have every intention to make good on their threats. They are NEVER bluffing.

Bibi was on target in his White House comment. Obama had lectured the Jews and Israel once too often and, just as Begin told Carter, Bibi let the world know that the Jews were not going to oblige and roll over and participate in Israel's demise.
And then as Obama lectured Aipac on Sunday, with brilliant spin, he was delivering the J Street message that everyone seemed to lap up. It was as if Jews were displaying their Galut mentality and salivated as he threw them a bone.
Obama had no right to give away Israel's bargaining position. The Arabs just have to sit back as Obama delivers portions of Israel to them while they do not denounce an iota of terror.
More strength to you, Bibi!

You are right, the US does not have the right to dictate your terms. But on the other hand, Israel does not have the right to expect the US to choose between our European allies and Israel. You ask for our help with the UN and you come to our house and lecture the US President on national t.v.? Many of us support Israel, but respect goes both ways. We have helped Israel as much or more than she has helped us. We also have paid the price by standing unconditionally with Israel, many in the International community do not like or respect the US for always being in Israel's corner. You build in the disputed territories when even friendly European allies asks you to stop and expect us to veto any condemnation in the UN against Israel. So if you feel we are not supporting you, than fine do not asks for our help.

I wish there were an Israeli statesman of the stature of the founding fathers of Israel -- Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres or even the earlier iteration of Likudnicks like Begin, Sharon or later iteration like Olmert. Netanyahu doesn't have vision and true toughness in his whole body what Rabin had in his little pinky. They all had the wisdom to know that you make peace with your enemies. I also think it's sad and ironic that the Israelis I grew up with were known as sabras -- tough on the outside but maybe tender on the inside. Netanyahu is the epitome of thin-skinned, the opposite of the Sabra.