President Obama is in Europe, supposedly trying to dissuade the Europeans from participating in the Palestinians’ attempt to gain statehood without offering peace to Israel. At his press conference he, no surprise to his critics, revealed he really doesn’t have a clue how to proceed when he described the major issues between the parties:

One is the issue of what would the territorial boundaries of a new Palestinian state look like. Number two: how could Israel feel confident that its security needs would be met? Number three: how would the issue of Palestinian refugees be resolved; and number four, the issue of Jerusalem. The last two questions are extraordinarily emotional. They go deep into how the Palestinians and the Jewish people think about their own identities. Ultimately they are going to be resolved by the two parties. I believe that those two issues can be resolved if there is the prospect and the promise that we can actually get to a Palestinian state and a secure Jewish state of Israel.

Alan Dershowitz points out the key error that Obama made on the Middle East policy, one so fundamental one can only imagine it was his idea rather than anyone with a modicum of experience in the Middle East. Dershowitz explains:

There is no way that Israel can agree to borders without the Palestinians also agreeing to give up any claim to a “right of return.” As Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad Salaam once told me: each side has a major card to play and a major compromise to make; for Israel, that card is the West Bank, and the compromise is returning to the 1967 lines with agreed-upon adjustments and land swaps; for the Palestinians, that card is “the right of return,” and the compromise is an agreement that the Palestinian refugees will be settled in Palestine and not in Israel; in other words, that there will be no right to “return” to Israel.

President Obama’s formulation requires Israel to give up its card and to make a “wrenching compromise” by dismantling most of the West Bank settlements and ending its occupation of the West Bank. But it does not require the Palestinians to give up their card and to compromise on the right of return. That “extraordinarily emotional” issue is to be left to further negotiations only after the borders have been agreed to.

That is what has gotten sophisticated observers, including Democrats, on Capitol Hill so riled up. Well, that and the central contradiction that Israel can’t be forced to deal with a unity government that includes Hamas, but has to get cracking on negotiations before the Europeans and others hand the Hamas-Fatah unity government its statehood.

It’s not some misunderstanding about Obama’s position on the 1967 lines, unfortunately. No, this is the same pattern that has driven American Jewish leaders and pro-Israel congressmen to distraction for over two years, as Dershowitz notes:

Once again, President Obama, by giving the Palestinians more than they asked for, has made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Palestinians to compromise. Earlier in his administration, Obama insisted that Israel freeze all settlement building, despite the fact that the Palestinians had not demanded such action as a precondition to negotiating. He forced the Palestinians to impose that as a precondition, because no Palestinian leader could be seen as less pro-Palestinian than the American President. Now he’s done it again, by not demanding that the Palestinians give up their right of return as a quid for Israel’s quo of returning to the 1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps.

Democrats are loath to admit the president doesn’t know what he is doing, so they are left trying to convince themselves and others that this is a fuss about nothing. The most honest defense I heard from a pro-Israel Democratic staffer was to acknowledge that Obama had made mincemeat out of the “peace process” but to remind me that talks aren’t going anywhere anyway. In essence, “no harm, no foul” and look at all the hardware and military support we’ve given Israel!

The problem with this formulation is three-fold. First, Obama has staked so much of his personal credibility on the peace process that failure (well, more failure) will cement the perception that the president has no influence in the region. Second, there is a very real dilemma: the pending action by the United Nations. It’s far from clear that taking away bargaining leverage from Israel is going to impress the parties, get the Palestinians (which ones? Mahmoud Abbas?) to the table, or persuade the Europeans, who seem bent on throwing Israel to the wolves. If anything, rifts between the United States and Israel tend to encourage Israel’s enemies. And finally, the president underestimated the degree to which fellow Democrats would rebuke him.

In my interview with Aaron David Miller, he acknowledged that he was surprised by the vehemence of the backlash, pointing to the speech by Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid ( D-Nev.). Reid hit the nail on the head. (“The place where negotiating will happen must be the negotiating table – and nowhere else. Those negotiations will not happen – and their terms will not be set – through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media. No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or about anything else.”) Miller wondered aloud whether lawmakers were genuinely upset or whether they were afraid Obama would “drag them under” in the upcoming election.

My own take is that it is frustration. For two years, most pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers have grumbled in private but in public have defended the president, offering alternative explanations and assuring their donors and supporters that the president really doesn’t favor the Palestinians. When this recent incident came up it simply reaffirmed all the concerns about Obama’s stance toward Israel and placed them once again in the position of defending the indefensible.

On one level, the last week has been reassuring to Israel and its friends. There is no significant constituency in the United States for Palestinian favoritism. (Sorry, J Street.) On the other hand, with his Thursday speech, his Sunday talk to AIPAC and now his comments in Britain, Obama has only reinforced the worst fears that he is either not well-disposed toward the Jewish state ( Israel has to give up more, and give it up first because it has been the “occupier,” goes this line of thought) or that he is incompetent and averse to taking any smart advice. These, I continue to argue, are not mutually exclusive explanations.