In Diplomatic Theater, Is Europe the Audience?
How the past several days of nutsiness may help Israel at the U.N.
“In particular, we appreciate his statement that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six-Day War,” a satisfied AIPAC declared yesterday after President Obama’s speech at its conference, referring to his earlier speech last Thursday; Prime Minister Netanyahu’s aides felt reassured by Obama’s “clarification.” This is Lewis Carroll stuff: There were zero substantive differences between the two speeches. Obama even pointed this out yesterday: “There was nothing particularly original in my proposal,” he noted. “Let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday—not what I was reported to have said.” He continued, “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” The rest—Netanyahu’s huffing and puffing, Obama’s applause-ridden “clarification” to AIPAC—was commentary of a particularly bizarre sort unless you understand it as pure diplomatic theater.
But if the theater worked one way—the U.S. president saying, for the first time, explicitly what everyone already knew to be true, and then being forgiven for saying the exact same thing three days later—then maybe it will work the other way, too? The president’s AIPAC speech established, first, that he is not going to alter his course in the face of intimidation, hectoring, and lecturing from the Israeli prime minister, and, second, that the reason he decided to take the diplomatic step is because he feels time is not on Israel’s side. As he said: “I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination.” Obama changed no substance, but he did engage in a bit of diplomacy, and it will have been successful diplomacy if it had a similar type of effect on the Palestinians and the Europeans that it did on Netanyahu.
There was no movement form the Palestinians. The fact is, there were two overwhelmingly pro-Israel speeches—among many other things, both explicitly called for a demilitarized Palestinian state—and even more moderate Palestinians read them as such. Fatah insisted Netanyahu remains too intransigent for direct talks, and that it will continue down its road to a September statehood push at the United Nations; President Abbas’s spokesperson expressed extreme dissatisfaction. Hamas went further, pledging not to recognize Israel. Furthermore—as Obama reminded us, both Thursday and Sunday—Hamas and Fatah are now allies. So clearly Obama failed to sway the Palestinians, which doubtfully was ever the purpose.
That said, the speech’s primary audience may have been Europe. Obama flew there yesterday for a six-day trip, to Ireland; Britain; a G-8 meeting in France; and Poland. “Administration officials said it would be up to Mr. Obama, during an economic summit in Paris next weekend, to try to talk his European counterparts out of endorsing Palestinian statehood in a coming United Nations vote, a prospect that would deeply embarrass Israel,” the Times reported.
All reporting suggests that Netanyahu lashed out at Obama after Thursday’s speech because he was surprised by it, and doesn’t like to be surprised, and is fearful of what other surpises may be on the way. Additionally, I am of the opinion that Netanyahu reacted the way he did—arrogantly lecturing his superpower patron and host while ignoring the substance of what he said—because he is personally boorish, ideologically inflexible, and characterologically craven.
However. To European eyes and ears, the Israeli leader’s dissatisfaction might serve also as proof of the U.S.’s fundamental reasonableness. The European Union’s foreign ministers have already jumped aboard Obama’s call for negotiating a treaty based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps. Wouldn’t it be funny if it helped persuade them that the U.S. remains worthy of leading when it comes to the question of Mideast peace, and therefore that it should be followed, when, in September, it opposes Palestinian efforts to secure statehood at the U.N.?
Netanyahu Aides Play Down Differences with Obama [WP]
AIPAC Likes Clarification on ’67 Lines [JTA]
Remarks by the President at the AIPAC Policy Conference 2011 [White House]
Palestinians: Netanyahu’s Dismissals of Obama’s Ideas Shows No Common Ground for Peace Talks [AP/WP]
Hamas: Obama Will Fail in Forcing Us to Recognize Israel [Haaretz]
Obama Presses Israel to Make ‘Hard Choices’ [NYT]
Mideast Questions Likely to Surface in Obama Trip to Europe [NYT]
EU Backs Obama’s Call for Mideast Treaty Based on 1967 Borders [AP/Haaretz]
Earlier: At AIPAC Summit, Obama Stays His Course
Bibi Gets What He Wants, Replies With Scorn