Minute after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left the House dais to rapturous applause, I had a call from a friend who also watched the long-anticipated speech to a joint meeting of Congress.
“He looks so smug, almost lounging against the podium,” my friend complained. “It creates a bad impression.”
On the contrary: it seems to me Bibi's physical demeanor underlined the intent and overarching theme of the speech: I'm like you. I'm Western, my country is a democracy that supports America and I'm perfectly comfortable standing up here before hundreds of America's top leaders.
On the whole, it was an extraordinary performance – if lacking in the daring new proposals Israeli newspapers suggested we would hear. It was also largely free of the partisan gamesmanship that many expected from a Prime Minister who has been fighting with the President of the United States, and who had some pretty harsh words to say last week about the current administration and its policies.
I have no doubt Jewish peace groups are disappointed – with Netanyahu, who seems as dug in as ever and whose message clearly resonated with Congress, and with President Obama, whose controversial words on the 1967 borders don't seem backed up by any new policy initiatives. Americans for Peace Now, in a statement, already labeled it a "step backward from peace."
I'm also pretty sure AIPAC and the other major pro-Israel groups are pleased as punch. A crisis in U.S.-Israel relations seems averted; the Prime Minister and the President are talking nice to each other, more or less; Congress is still pretty much a solid wall of support, with few signs of new cracks.
Where all this will lead is anybody's guess. My own stab at answering the question:
- President Obama will continue to appeal to our European allies to reject Palestinian statehood moves at the UN, probably with only limited success
- Netanyahu, betting that the Obama administration is all talk and no action, will continue to point to the obvious obstacles to resumed negotiations – starting with the Fatah-Hamas alliance – and hold precariously to the status quo
- Jewish peace groups will keep saying time is running out, but not explain how peace talks can be restarted under current conditions, and continue to be frustrated by an administration that is unlikely to risk major U.S. diplomatic capital on negotiations seen as unlikely to advance
- groups on the right will keep trying to pull the centrist groups in their direction, claiming the administration is waging a virtual war on the Jewish state – again, with only limited success.
And just about everybody will hope there won't be any major eruptions of violence in the next few months. But I suspect few are counting on it. And everybody will watch the approach of September with trepidation.
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