Thursday, May 26, 2011

Netanyahu and Obama: Observations from Washington

It’s been a crazy week in the ongoing soap opera, “Bibi and ‘Bama,” and given the reception Prime Minister Netanyahu got in Congress, I think the GOP wishes Netanyahu could be their standard bearer in 2012. There are so many fascinating dynamics at work here that it would make for a top notch TV comedy if the situation weren’t deathly serious. It has all the earmarks of a classic sitcom: miscommunication, contrasting personalities, awkward moments and bad timing (as Carol Burnett said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time”), and the all important smooch ending, at least until next week.

What are the pundits saying? The links below run the gamut of opinions, which naturally range widely. I can’t stress enough how important it is for all of us to be acutely aware of what is happening and to try to be open to differing views. The abusive invective spewn off this past week has hit an all time high. When Abe Foxman, the child of survivors, is being told by a Jew ‘Why did God save you from the Holocaust,’ simply because he defended the President (see the top link from James Besser) things are really bad. BTW, if you are thinking of emailing me anything attacking the President or anyone else in a personal manner, I have one request: Don’t.

There is a fear of clear thinking in the Jewish world these days. We have real clear reasons to be fearful: of a nuclear Iran, of the train wreck that could occur when the UN likely will endorse a Palestinian state in September and of other things as well. But that fear should not keep us from thinking critically and and we need to resist succumbing to hysterics.

So with that in mind, some observations about the President, the P.M. and my few days in Washington. I also listened in to a conference call this afternoon between Jewish leaders and Dennis Ross at the White House. He had some interesting things to say. This is a long posting, so take it to the beach with you on your iPad and chew on it for a while.

· Ari Fleischer spoke here last Friday night (to a throng of 450 people). I am glad we can continue to be the only address where all sides of this issue can be heard. I found Fleischer to be articulate and on point with many of his observations here last Shabbat, and he was able to demonstrate some concrete differences between what the President had stated on Thursday and the Bush letter of 2004. But he failed to convince me that what Obama said had compromised Israel’s bargaining position to any substantial degree. And he had no better plan to deal with the unilateral declaration of statehood, short of that Obama had better stop it. I was also disappointed that he could find no way that the Bush administration might have done things any differently with regard to Israel and the Middle East, to have helped to put Israel in a better position today.

· I’ve read and heard much from all sides of the “1967 lines” flap. Obama’s error was not so much in saying those words out loud but in failing to explain them clearly last Thursday. He did explain them on Sunday, but to this day, people (who obviously weren’t listening) are claiming that Obama said he wants Israel to go back to those indefensible borders. That’s not what he said at all, but he should have explained that land swaps need not be 50-50 and will take into account security needs and demographic changes since 1967 – i.e. settlement blocs like Ma’aleh Adumim and the Etzion bloc near Jerusalem and Ariel near Tel Aviv. See David Makovsky’s proposed map above, just one example of a possible land swap. Both Obama and Netanyahu are looking at similar maps (though the Prime Minister’s would also include a military presence along the Jordan River for a duration of time – and it should).

· Obama’s two big mistakes had nothing to do with “1967 lines.” They were: 1) his springing this language on the Israelis without warning and 2) his proposing a two–stage resolution, determining borders and security now, refugees and Jerusalem later. That was the Oslo formula and gradualism didn’t work because the hoped for good faith and mutual trust did not materialize. Too many forces on the ground wanted to scuttle the process and they succeeded. “Borders first” also forces Israel to give up its greatest bargaining chip right off the bat.

· But in his conference call today, Dennis Ross, speaking for the Administration, made it clear that the Israelis have known since October that the ’67 thing was being considered by the Administration. He also backed away from any notion of a two stage process, saying that there would be overlap, that the security and territory issues would not necessarily be completely resolved before the more difficult “narrative” issues (Jerusalem and refugees) were addressed. It is their feeling that progress would be made on those first two issues more easily, which would lend momentum toward resolving the others. So we are not talking about years of implementation before addressing the core issues, as was present in the 90s (when gradualism didn’t work).

· The Administration really believes that they need to provide, in Ross’s words, a credible alternative to Palestinian unilateralism, both for the Palestinians and, just as importantly, the Europeans and others in the Quartet. And indeed, today French President Sarkozy, a staunch defender of Israel, declared that the agreement with Hamas is “good news.” Obama wanted to go to Europe with creative Israeli ideas in hand as a means of luring everyone away from a September disaster at the UN. That did not happen.

· In fact, there appear to be no new Israeli ideas. Netanyahu was powerful and charismatic in selling his vision to Congress, and he did go farther than he ever had before in expressing a willingness to give up settlements (though Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon actually did give up settlements). I would liked to see him be more genuine and less patronizing in his extending a hand to the Palestinians, but that would have been dramatically out of character. Given that Netanyahu knew that Obama was not implying a return to the actual 1967 borders, it’s hard to understand why he allowed this situation to get out of control. Was he punishing the American President for his surprise with an aggressive broadside of his own? If so, it was not wise, and it also did a disservice to AIPAC, creating an artificial and inflammatory distraction, forcing delegates to choose up sides between the President and Prime Minister (for more on that, see the Forward editorial, “Don’t Make Us Choose.” Why he did that, I have no idea, but it undermined the “We are One” message of AIPAC – and threatened its bipartisanship too.

· All that said, the US-Israel relationship is, as both leaders kept saying, “iron clad.” Strategically, more is being shared than ever – of particular significance is the military cooperation on the Iron Dome defensive shield. And at AIPAC we learned about the Israeli-made armor that protects American tanks in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the miracle bandage that saved Gabby Giffords’ life. Meanwhile one can only be in awe of what AIPAC has accomplished in cementing that relationship. When Netanyahu addressed Congress at the Capitol, he had already addressed more than 2/3 of them the night before at the AIPAC banquet. Many of the applause lines were the same, the bipartisanship was the same – it was almost as if the address on the Hill was an extension of the AIPAC policy conference itself, and the Congress has become just a few hundred more AIPAC delegates. And, timed perfectly, when Netanyahu was finished and all the senators and reps left the House floor, who was waiting for them at their offices? Thousands of lobbyists, their constituents (us), trained by AIPAC to drive home Bibi’s talking points.

· Modern communications…. While we waited for Senators Lieberman and Blumenthal, we heard Netanyahu’s speech. I opened my iPhone’s “Tune in Radio” app and listened to the speech on Israeli radio, with simultaneous Hebrew commentary, while the Prime Minister spoke just a few hundred yards away.

· AIPAC always keeps things simple, and our lobbying efforts focused on only three items, two of which are consensus issues, the other, somewhat more complex. Read about all three here. The first is a bill to strengthen the sanctions on Iran. Senator Lieberman’s staff has been instrumental in putting it together and it has just been prepared. Essentially, it will hit the Republican Guard hardest and target shipping companies that transport weapons and nuclear equipment. We also lobbied for the foreign aid bill, not simply for Israel but the entire bill. To cut one would open the door to reducing Israel aid – it was noted that 75% of Israel’s aid is spent right back here, helping the US economy, and that foreign aid represents only 1 percent of the US budget.

· Foreign aid would be cut for the Palestinians, however, if Hamas enters the government and refuses to renounce terrorism and accept Israel (and prior agreements). That is fine, but it begs the question of how Abbas will be able to negotiate on behalf of Gaza when he isn’t running Gaza (and if you look at the map on top, any land swaps would have to involve territory adjacent to, you guessed it, Gaza).

· At one AIPAC session I attended, a speaker summed up the situation perfectly. Israel has no partner to talk with and no creative ideas to share. So all sides seem content to run out the clock… to September. The lack of creativity on Israel’s part is disturbing, but so is Abbas’ apparent shift to the Dark Side. Everyone believes that the West Bank is more peaceful, free and prosperous than it ever has been… but most also believe that more violence is inevitable without an agreement.

· I still think that the two sides could be brought back to the table if each side’s preconditions were met in a grand tradeoff. A six month moratorium on settlement construction (outside Jerusalem and the three core settlement blocs) for a pledge not to go to the UN or declare statehood unilaterally, plus an agreed upon formula to marginalize Hamas. Six months would get us beyond September and give peace a chance.

· Won’t happen. It makes too much sense. It also assumes both parties are willing.

· AIPAC has its flaws, but we would be in sorry shape without it. Iran would possibly have a nuclear weapon by now. Israel would likely have become a wedge issue in American politics. And the polls would not be showing astronomical support for Israel that cuts across the board among American demographic groups. Yes it’s annoying that the conference sometimes looks more like an “Up with People” concert. It was amazing to see a Mormon student from Brigham Young locking arms with a student from an African American University on the stage (something that could never have occurred on Brigham Young’s campus only a few years ago). The message was unmistakable: All Americans are united behind Israel – and support of Israel unites America like nothing else. Didn’t see lots of Muslims or Palestinians, though. But maybe I didn’t look hard enough. Yes, the plenaries are drained of spontaneity, sort of like a Republican convention. But they stay on message and that message is for the most part good.

· Yes, that message is also a blank check for a government with questionable policies, albeit a democratically chosen one. Because there is little or no criticism of the government allowed (even Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, was remarkably tame), the veneer displayed is one of Jewish unity along with Israeli-American partnership. Yet we all know that the image is illusory. AIPAC’s job is neither to represent American Jewry nor to pass judgment on Israel’s policies. They keep their eyes on a bigger prize. But that expensive façade comes at a cost. What kind of cost? We’ll see in September – or beyond.

· For rabbis, AIPAC conferences are a rare opportunity to meet with a large group of rabbis from all denominations – as well as other clergy. That in itself makes the trip worthwhile. Once you get away from the big hall, lots of interesting things are happening. One could compare it to the ancient pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem, the one time all year when everyone got together. It isn’t meant to be that, but it has become that. But I couldn’t help but wonder who wasn’t there. While this conference had more college students than ever before – 1,500, J-Street’s recent conference had a thousand. Woudn’t it be nice, I wondered, to have a conference that all 2,500 could have attended.

· Speaking of J-Street, no one would mention it by name. It was as if there was some unwritten rule. It has become the Voldemort of the Jewish establishment. People commented on it, of course, and at times it was the elephant not in the room. One speaker said something that resonated with me. J-Street and AIPAC are complementary. AIPAC is about Israel’s supporters influencing the policies of the American government and J-Street is about influencing policies of the Israeli government. I’m sure neither J-Street nor AIPAC would agree with that formulation, but it works for me. And 2500 college students at the same pro-Israel conference would be nice.

See commentaries below:

’67 Border Flap Deepens Rifts: James Besser, The Jewish Week
Experts Weigh In on Obama's Middle East Speech Lessons from Tahrir Square: Thomas Friedman
Poll: Netanyahu, US congress & AIPAC stand to the right of Israeli public
Netanyahu at AIPAC – More popular than the President?
Congress to the Palestinians: Drop DeadHuffington Post
Same Netanyahu, Different Israel: Foreign Affairs
Who Made the "Hard Choices" on Peace? - Jonathan S. Tobin
Peace Comes Only with Arab World's Acceptance of Israel - Rep. Eric Cantor. WSJ
Why the Palestinians have time on their side: Jeffrey Goldberg on
The Anti-Israel President: Bret Stephens, WSJ
U.S. and Israel: Partners for Peace - David Harris (Boston Globe)
Officials fear 'Palestine' declaration will bring boycott
Israel Seeks Coalition of Democracies Against PA Statehood Bid - Herb Keinon
Israelis See Netanyahu Trip as Diplomatic Failure - Ethan Bronner (New York Times)
What Bibi Gains by Misrepresenting Obama's Mideast Policy – Joe Klein, Time
An Insider's Look At AIPAC Conference: Just Me And 10,000 Other Attendees – Gary Rosenblatt, Jewish Week

1 comment:

Metro Journalist said...

I think Obama made another mistake -- his advisers, who seem to be just yes men. He (or they) should have known about Prime Minister Netanyahu's background. He's not just an Israeli head of state or an Israeli citizen who knows the daily threat of terrorism. His brother, Yoni, died while fighting Palestinian terrorists. Yes, he takes this issue personally. Yoni Netanyahu was one of Israel's greatest heroes, even before his death. Coincidentally, Yoni died on the 200th anniversary of America's Independence Day.

The Netanyahus lived in Pennsylvania long enough for the Jews there to embrace them as a part of the community. There is a monument dedicated to Yoni in Philadelphia.

In addition to being a top-tier soldier, Yoni was gifted and charismatic. Three years after his death, The Jonathan Institute was established to sponsor international conferences on terrorism. Bibi attributes his "hard line against all terrorists" to the death of his brother.

This is something that those who are involved in foreign affairs and diplomacy should know. Had Obama been aware of this, he may approached the Israeli Prime Minister more diplomatically.