Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu have now spent six days lecturing each other about the “realities” of the Middle East, either face-to-face or with Congress, the State Department or the AIPAC lobbying group as an audience. They have managed to focus the attention of Washington and much of the world on their differences over Palestinian statehood, and their evident animosity toward each other.
So it’s worth asking: Did either of them accomplish anything positive?
Let’s start with what they did not achieve. Far from restarting the Mideast peace process, Obama and Netanyahu ensured that it will remain moribund for months to come. Palestinians were reconfirmed in their plans to take their case for statehood to the United Nations General Assembly in September, and to set up a new government backed by both the Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamic Hamas. Their spokesmen declared disappointment with both Netanyahu and Obama.
Nor did Netanyahu and Obama appear to have any effect on each other. After meeting for several hours at the White House on Friday, each delivered a full-throated restatement of positions that are at odds both on the terms for Palestinian statehood and the tactics for making it happen. Netanyahu objects not only to Obama’s formula for basing a Palestinian state on Israel’s 1967 border lines but also to the strategy of pressuring Israel to make concessions on territory before addressing Palestinian demands for a “right of return” to Israel for refugees.
Netanyahu believes there must be a tradeoff between territory, refugees and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — especially as Israel has little to concede other than land. Remarkably, however, in three public statements over five days, Obama never reconfirmed the U.S. position under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, which is that most or all refugees must be resettled in the new Palestinian state.
This is all pretty counterproductive. But supporters of Obama and Netanyahu might argue that their intention was never to please each other, or to convince the Palestinians; nor did they expect peace negotiations to start. Rather their real aims were more limited and indirect.
Obama’s real target, by this logic, was European governments, while Netanyahu’s was Congress. And each may hope that his rhetoric won over those audiences.
Obama is worried about Europe because the votes of European nations will determine whether the United States is isolated with Israel in opposing a U.N. declaration of Palestinan statehood in September. By stating the principle of a settlement based on the 1967 lines, and showing his willingness to publicly take on Netanyahu, Obama won some European sympathy. He will find out how much during his meetings during this week’s European tour, when he will argue that EU governments should continue to support a U.S.-brokered peace process rather than a U.N. declaration.
This is a priority for Israel, as well — which is why Netanyahu offered several concessions in his speech to Congress. Though hardly noticed, they were real for the Israeli prime minister — particularly an acknowledgement that in any final agreement some Israeli West Bank settlements will be left outside of Israel’s border.
But Netanyahu had another purpose — rallying congressional support for Israel’s peace terms, rather than those of Obama. The Israeli leader elicited standing ovations as he declared that Israel would never return to the 1967 lines, and that Palestinian refugees would not return to Israel. And some, though not all, congressmen stood when he declared that Israel would need a long-term military presence on the Palestinian border with Jordan — a stance at odds with Obama’s.
Israelis counted the ovations as a victory. One official noted to me that Netanyahu collected 28, compared to 26 for Obama at the last State of the Union address. But the Israeli leader has pursued this strategy before. As he himself said, he addressed a joint session of Congress 15 years ago; at that time, he was at odds with the Clinton administration. But congressional support didn’t spare Netanyahu from Clinton’s ire — and Israeli voters punished him for his disputes with the White House by voting him out office. Evidently, the Israeli leader feels confident that history won’t repeat itself.