As the dust settles in the wake of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s dramatic altercation with President Barack Obama, one is now able to evaluate the repercussions.
Obama’s ambush of Netanyahu was utterly counterproductive.
Coming just a few weeks after the PA union with the genocidal Hamas, and recognizing the futility of the effort he had invested to placate Obama a few days earlier, Netanyahu realized that he was obliged to end the Alice in Wonderland charade and defend Israel’s needs by tell the truth – even if that entailed a public disagreement.
The prime minister’s forthright but dignified response not only refuted the depiction of him as a weak, indecisive leader but, contrary to what much of the media suggested, his standing with Israelis skyrocketed.
However, it was a calculated gamble. Had the Democrats not supported Netanyahu so enthusiastically, he would have been accused of undermining the longstanding Congressional bipartisan backing for Israel – a crucial factor in maintaining public support for the Jewish state.
Clearly, his strategy succeeded.
Indeed, former UN ambassador John Bolton described Netanyahu’s reception by Congress as heralding “a significant new political dynamic in the US.”
Although Obama regrettably refused to endorse the crucial Bush administration commitment to reject the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, he did at least backtrack significantly by “clarifying” to AIPAC that he was not proposing a return to the indefensible 1949 armistice lines.
The president’s acolytes skimmed over Obama’s disastrous evasion of the refugee issue, but insisted that Netanyahu had deliberately distorted his initial remarks. They failed to appreciate that the ’67 lines were never actually recognized borders, but merely armistice lines. Moreover, Obama’s initial remarks were inconsistent with UN Resolution 242, and the Bush undertaking to endorse Israel’s inclusion of major settlement blocs.
Obama also ignored the fact that Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly insisted that territorial swaps would be minimal, and that in the event of failing to achieve “mutual agreement” on swaps, the indefensible ’67 borders would become the fallback. Nor, it would appear, did his advisers comprehend the significant security threats to Israel that Obama presented when calling for a contiguous Palestinian state (which would effectively require splitting Israel in half) and rejecting a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley.
After the stellar reception by Congress – and despite shrill denunciations by Tzipi Livni, whose reputation subsequently plunged to an all-time low, after accusing Netanyahu of undermining the relationship with the US – Netanyahu’s government is, for the time being, in a strong position.
Moreover, no American president can afford to abandon Israel in the face of the tremendous support it enjoys in Congress and among the American people. Even in the course of confronting Netanyahu, Obama re-affirmed the extension of military aid to Israel, and his opposition to unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
NEVERTHELESS, WE face perilous days. Israel remains isolated and, aside from the United States, Canada and Australia, the world automatically blames us rather than the intransigent Palestinians for the failure to move toward peace.
Netanyahu is well aware that in the American system, the president and not the legislature directs foreign policy. He must also realize that unless the Republicans get their act together, Obama will probably be reelected.
There is also little doubt that the Obama administration remains fixated on a Third World approach toward Israel, as manifested by the abrogation of the former Bush administration commitments.
But the good news is that when pressured by his colleagues and party, Obama has displayed considerable flexibility and backtracked.
A serious two-pronged effort is therefore required to reinforce our position. Under ideal circumstances, we should have a unity government – which is unlikely so long as Livni leads Kadima. Yet, even failing that, the Obama administration now appreciates that Israelis solidly support their prime minister. At the same time, we must maintain and strengthen public support for Israel in the US.
A very strong factor in Israel’s favor is AIPAC – a professional organization which operates without fanfare and ensures that Israel advocacy is effectively promoted in Congress at a bipartisan level.
Its success was highlighted by the unprecedented congressional endorsement Netanyahu received, despite confronting the leader of the most powerful nation.
However, I personally sense a growing unease among Jewish leaders and opinion makers – even among the ranks of the traditionally pro-Israel leadership.
A senior Jewish leader told me that “for the pro-Israel Jewish liberal, the ultimate nightmare was always a direct confrontation over the Jewish state with a liberal president. This has now come home to roost, and is far more traumatic for us than the confrontations between the Shamir government and president George Bush Sr. who headed a Republican administration.”
Even a pro-Israel Jewish journalist like Jeffrey Goldberg protested hysterically that Netanyahu was “hectoring” his president, and behaving like rogue president Chavez of Venezuela. The former, disgraced NY attorney general Eliot Spitzer, trying to make a political comeback, accused Netanyahu of “blowing it” by picking a “stupid,” “needless” and “wrong” dispute with the president. Jane Eisner of the leftleaning Forward newspaper warned Netanyahu not to force American Jews to choose between him and their president.
More disconcerting, Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the influential New York-based Jewish Week, accused Netanyahu of “losing it,” of having blundered. He claimed that his response at the initial press release was “an absolute hasbara disaster for Jerusalem,” making him the “Mideast’s Mr. No” because he failed to state then (as he did subsequently at AIPAC) that Obama “has shown his commitment to Israel’s security both in word and in deed.”
Rosenblatt implied – in my opinion mistakenly – that Netanyahu’s remarks were primarily directed toward his domestic constituency. He did concede that Obama’s remarks on borders and refugees were problematic, but did not warrant recourse to open criticism, and maintained that Netanyahu should have concentrated on the positive remarks.
In the same vein, Abe Foxman of the ADL and David Harris of the American Jewish Committee initially praised the positive aspects of the president’s speech, despite sharing concerns about his other remarks. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was singularly silent.
I am confident that Netanyahu will be vindicated. American Jewish leaders are now beginning to appreciate that they cannot continuously grovel to Obama while Israel is constantly in the firing line and the administration fawns to the intransigent Arabs who refuse to compromise on anything.
Israel must continue speaking the truth without polarizing the American public or Congress.
Should Netanyahu revert to his previous position of pretending that all is well, and fail to forcefully defend our crucial security requirements, the ramifications will be disastrous. He must remain firm while employing his diplomatic talents to maintain an ongoing relationship with the US administration. There is little doubt that as of now, our prime minister is performing well, reflects the national consensus, and has the backing of the vast majority of the nation.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post