Friday, May 20, 2011

obama and netanyahu

Readers of this blog know I am not one of those who thinks Israel--especially the Israeli Government--are always right. But they aren't always wrong, either. This week is one of the times they aren't.

There are two interpretations of President Obama's Middle East speech, in which he suggested that peace should be based on the 1967 borders with adjustments or "swaps" agreed to by the two parties. One is that Obama is fed up with Israel and intentionally leaning in a more pro-Arab direction. This interpretation is disconcerting to Israel, but would at least suggest a coherent policy, which would probably be supported by a lot of Americans although not by Israel's core supporters.

The more frightening--and I think accurate--interpretation is that, as a "senior Israeli official" (probably Netanyahu himself) has suggested, Obama is simply in over his head, trying to say a little bit to please all sides but making none of them happy. It is noteworthy, on this point, that Arab reaction to the speech has been only marginally more positive than that of Israel. Even Israelis, I suspect, are more puzzled than genuinely angry.

Everyone knows that peace, if it comes, will be based on something approaching the 1967 borders with additional clauses for Jerusalem, refugees, and other issues. What is hard to understand is what is gained by saying so at this point. A possible explanation is that Obama wanted to forestall a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood by throwing a bone to the Arab side at this juncture. The problem is that, by awarding something before negotiations, he has actually reduced the incentive to negotiate and suggested that unilateral actions, by one or perhaps both sides, will be rewarded. From an Israeli perspective, there is a fear that it will result in a no war/no peace situation, where the country will be left with problematic borders and no real commitment to peace by the other side.

The only good news is that the speech will probably shake Israel, and some its more blinkered American supporters, out of their complacency. It has been obvious for some time that Israel is losing support among Americans generally and American Jews specifically, partly for reasons beyond its control, but partly because of its own actions. The traditional arguments--Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East (it isn't anymore), any compromise will lead to another Holocaust (no longer convincing if it ever was)--have plainly run their course. For better or worse, Israel has to compete in a marketplace of ideas and policies where it no longer has a monopoly of virtue and where increasing numbers of people see the region through neutral, if not actively Arab, eyes. If the Obama speech causes Jerusalem to wake up to these realities, it will have accomplished some good, after all.


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