Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has responded in a masterful manner to Obama’s unanticipated Middle East policy statement – presented without prior consultation on the eve of the Israeli leader’s arrival in Washington – hardly how one would expect the US leader to relate to its “close ally,” an embattled nation.
Sensitive of the imperative to avoid antagonizing the American public by openly humiliating its president, Netanyahu exercised his diplomatic talent and communication skills by providing a restrained response, and outlining why Israel simply could not afford to adopt some of Obama’s recommendations. Our leader’s remarks to the press after meeting with the president, his address to AIPAC, and his brilliant presentation to the joint session of Congress represented a tour de force and made most Israelis feel extremely proud.
What made Obama’s “ambush” especially galling was that only a few days earlier, Netanyahu had delivered a major Knesset policy speech signaling to the US president that beyond the settlement blocs and Jerusalem, Israel was prepared to make further territorial concessions, subject only to the caveat that the Palestinians demonstrate a genuine willingness to negotiate toward a final settlement and disengage from their new genocidal partners.
Obama’s repeated expressions of “unshakable support” for Israel, and his assurance that the US would oppose any Palestinian efforts to breach the Oslo Accords by unilaterally creating a state in September via the United Nations are appreciated, but these failed to detract from the chilling implications of his other policy pronouncements.
In his initial State Department speech, Obama ignored the terms of UN Resolution 242 and the commitment of president George W. Bush to prime minister Ariel Sharon declaring America’s support for Israel’s retention of the major settlement blocs, and the establishment of secure and defensible borders. It was only on the basis of this undertaking that Sharon implemented the disengagement from Gaza that proved so disastrous.
Instead, Obama proclaimed that the pre ’67 lines (in reality the 1949 armistice lines) – subject to “agreed swaps” (but without reference to settlement blocs or defensible borders) should represent the basis of the new borders. He was surely aware that PA President Mahmoud Abbas had frequently insisted that “swaps” could only be minuscule.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, without Knesset endorsement, had unofficially proposed a similar formula to Abbas, but it was conditional on an end-of-conflict settlement in which all issues, including refugees, were resolved. His offers were summarily rejected.
Reacting to Netanyahu’s courageous response, Obama “clarified” his original remarks when he addressed AIPAC, suggesting that the borders would be modified, and even employing Bush’s language regarding demographic changes. But he still adamantly insisted that the pre-1967 armistice lines become the opening benchmark for future negotiations, failed to impose any tangible reciprocal concessions from the Palestinians, including resolving the “wrenching” refugee issue, and refused to reaffirm Bush’s commitment that the refugee problem must be resolved outside the borders of Israel.
If implemented, Obama’s policy as outlined to AIPAC would enable Palestinians to secure a state based on the pre-1967 armistice lines while still demanding the “right of return” – and not conceding anything in return.
This would oblige Israel to lower the benchmark for negotiations to such an extent that it would no longer retain any leverage to facilitate reciprocal concessions from the Palestinians. In short, it would finally demolish the discredited policy of trading land for peace.
Further, it would guarantee the perpetuation of the conflict and enable the Palestinians to escalate their campaign to end Jewish sovereignty by intensifying their demand for the right of return, which is the central component of that campaign.
It is thus inconceivable for Israel to offer further territorial concessions until and unless the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people and accept that their refugee issue will be resolved within the borders of any future Palestinian state. The continuous reference to “occupation” is also misleading, as the PA today effectively controls most of the West Bank, and the Israel military presence there is only to ensure security. Gaza, meanwhile, is completely controlled by the Iran-backed Hamas.
The Obama recommendations represent the culmination of a process initiated with the Oslo Accords, whereby “we give and the Palestinians take.”
If realized, it would represent the Palestinians’ crowning achievement of undermining Israel in stages.
It was also bizarre for Obama to refer constantly to democracy in a region where radical Islamic forces utterly opposed to the US and the West are slaughtering dissidents and religious minorities. Yet Israel, the only genuine democracy in the region, is treated as an obstacle to progress simply because we are not willing to lie down and accept a potentially existential threat.
In the US, aside from the predictable responses from the liberal media, Israel clearly enjoys the support of the majority. Netanyahu, in a forthright manner, pulled no punches, telling Congress that while willing to make sacrifices, Israel would not divide Jerusalem, accept Arab refugees, or forgo the security related to maintaining a military presence in the Jordan Valley. The repeated, unprecedented standing ovations he received from the joint session of Congress demonstrate that despite his differences with the president, he still retains strong bipartisan support crucial for Israel’s long-term relationship with the US.
However, despite an upsurge of support from rankand- file American Jews, initial responses were muted. Aside from the right-wing ZOA, only World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder and Simon Wiesenthal Center head Rabbi Marvin Hier publicly condemned the negative aspects of the Obama address.
We are confronting existential issues that will determine the very future and viability of the Jewish state. It is imperative that we now suspend political differences and unite behind Netanyahu, who speaks on behalf of the vast majority of the nation and whose public support has risen dramatically.
For over a year, many of us have appealed for the formation of a unity government, but the behavior of opposition leader Tzipi Livni over the past week has been so contemptible that this clearly will not happen while she leads Kadima. One has the impression that as Netanyahu adopts increasingly centrist positions, instead of endorsing his initiatives, Livni becomes more hysterical and irrational and intensifies her defamatory outbursts. Even Meretz firebrand Zehava Gal-On called for wall-to-wall support for Netanyahu’s stand against a return of refugees.
At this period of crisis, it is surely time for Kadima to call for Livni’s resignation and elect a leader willing to prioritize the national interest over petty politics. How ironic that members of the US Congress appear to have greater sensitivity and concern for the very real perils confronting Israel than some of our own Knesset members! Domestic unity is crucial to ensure that Obama’s frightening recommendations will not be implemented.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post