May 22, 2011

Israelis should wish Obama well in Europe

For which audience did President Obama tailor last Thursday's long speech on the Middle East? Of course, Arabs were interested in how Obama might meet the seismic changes rippling across the Middle East, but it's been a long time since they stopped taking speeches seriously. And they're hardly waiting on Washington's green light to take to the streets and fight for their rights. 

Israelis seem not to mind that their Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was doing nothing substantive to promote meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians even before the Fatah-Hamas merger. Netanyahu had been using House Speaker John Boehner to get his own Capitol Hill pep rally and one-up the President, so Obama pulled rank and moved up his own Mideast speech to the day before his own meeting with Netanyahu. But mutual spite still doesn't impact a major Presidential speech. Obama must know the peace process is going nowhere for a while, so what impact could he hope to make with such a speech?

One audience that could be useful to the President is the Europeans, whom he will be visiting this coming week. Nearly all the Western European nations were already signed up to support Palestinian statehood next September at the United Nations. Then, in a belated tribute to the efforts of Hosni Mubarak, Hamas and Fatah agreed to try out a reconciliation. Almost immediately, the Europeans made clear they wouldn't support the declaration of statehood if the new Palestine embraced the rejectionist, terrorist Hamas. So Hamas started intimating its readiness to accept further negotiations with Israel... possibly just enough to keep the Europeans hanging on.

For all his gamesmanship with Obama, Netanyahu has played right into the hands of the Palestinians and -- more significantly -- the Arab League. After all, for over a year it has been the Arab plan let Netanyahu drag out the negotiations (or, the negotiations over whether to negotiate), knowing this would bolster their case for a unilateral (i.e., without Israel's approval) declaration of statehood. Such a move will not help the Palestinian people in the long term, but for a few years it will give them the trappings of statehood and cause Israel no shortage of diplomatic nightmares around the world. The United States can veto resolutions in the Security Council, but sovereignty goes through the General Assembly. Whether or not the newly recognized Palestine gets admitted to the UN as a member state, if 190 governments -- or even 175 -- accord it full status, that will be a big headache for Israel and for the United States.

For his part, Netanyahu has been lobbying European leaders to oppose a September declaration. And that's about it. But it is a pattern: Aside from unilateral Palestinian statehood, Israel's other existential priority should be Iran's nuclear program -- not the re-wording of standard terms for negotiating with the Palestinians, not flaunting the support of anti-Obama politicians and Jewish leaders. If anything, slapping a one-year moratorium on all new housing in the West Bank would have brought the Palestinians back to the table, which would incentivize the Europeans to hold off on statehood and to help Israel save itself from nuclear blackmail. Netanyahu consistently argues against any Palestinian pre-conditions to talks, making it their fault if they don't return to the table, when it's obvious he has pre-conditions of his own, and some of them very understandable: enforcement of all security agreements, no Hamas participation in the Palestinian Authority...

Obama, on the other hand, has been trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table. And if the Europeans think some kind of progress would be jeopardized by supporting premature statehood, they might defer. He also got stronger UN sanctions against Iran than George W. Bush did, with all his sincere championing of Israel. Thursday's speech about the Middle East put Europeans on notice that Washington (i.e., Obama, not Boehner) remains committed to a reality-based framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Having the Europeans' chief financier under house arrest in New York City for sexual assault (that would be Dominique Strauss-Kahn) can only help the President's influence over the Europeans, as well as the rest of the G-8 leaders he'll meet over there. 

The Europeans will welcome Obama for killing bin Laden and for standing up to Netanyahu (especially since Netanyahu expressed public umbrage even before flying to Washington). In all honesty, chances are that Obama would have given the same speech even if he didn't care about stopping the Palestinian declaration -- he really does not like or trust Netanyahu. But the fact is, he does want to put a stop to the statehood issue. There's too much at stake for U.S. interests across the region, and Israel is a key ally both militarily and symbolically. And any President needs all the cash he can get for re-election, and he probable gave up long ago on winning over those Jews who condemned Thursday's speech.

It also needs to be said, the President went only slightly beyond what has been said by his Democratic and Republican predecessors, and by Netanyahu's own predecessors. But he did push out the public terms a bit further, which the Chicago crowd will appreciate and so will the Europeans. 

It should not need to be said, but let's be mature about this: Obama did not call for Israel to return to the borders it had before the 1967 Six-Day War. He restated what has been obvious for over a decade to everyone, including Netanyahu -- which may be why Netanyahu has tried so hard to avoid real talks -- that the 1949 Armistice Line, with land swaps, is the BASIS for negotiations leading to a Palestinian state, etc., etc., etc. 

The Europeans are skeptical of Netanyahu, but they are also wary of any Palestinian government that includes Hamas. Maybe the President can convince them to give Israeli-Palestinian peace one more chance, and/or to press harder against Iran). Obama may not enjoy being seen by Netanyahu and many Israelis (and some American Jews) as public enemy number-one, but hopefully he can trade on that with the Europeans. Israelis had better hope he succeeds.


  1. Shai: Balanced, well written. It is a paradox. complicated yet so do-able.

  2. Nice work. You really to provide multiple perspectives across a wide, complicated spectrum.