Barack and Bibi: An Optimistic Reading
According to a very reliable source, Abraham Foxman got an e-mail the other day, lamenting the fact that Hitler didn’t get him, apparently because of the Anti-Defamation League’s statement praising President Obama’s Middle East speech. I didn’t call for confirmation because I didn’t want Abe to ask me not to publish, and I regard my sourcing as pretty close to impeccable.
The Internet has been exploding lately with e-mail slime about Obama and the so-called “Auschwitz borders,” which Abba Eban often said was the one moment in his life that he regretted more than any other. There’s an ugly mood in the land that ill serves us. This is not something orchestrated out of Jerusalem; it’s an expression of a psychological debility, some sort of post-Holocaust stress syndrome: Eban once said, “We are a wounded people.”
Nonetheless, Bibi could make things better if he moderated his own speech. He’s taken up a position that he knows is untenable, partly for domestic political reasons, playing to his right flank, and partly as a tactical feint to improve his eventual, inevitable bargaining position. Israel has run out of time for stalling; Bibi’s too smart not to know this, and besides, he’s hearing it from his security and intelligence people. He’s saying stuff that simply inflames the right and makes things uglier.
Now, assuming he’s saying the stuff he’s saying for tactical reasons, that’s not the end of the world. Politicians can’t always be telling the truth — they have to tell people what they want to hear in order to gain the running room to do what needs to be done.
The fact is, though, that his reaction to Obama’s speech is one giant whopper. Three giant whoppers, in fact. Call it the Three Whoppers of Blair House, in honor of the famous Three No’s of Khartoum.
Whopper No. 1: It’s unrealistic to demand that Israel go back to the 1967 borders, because they’re indefensible. Negotiations can’t be conducted on that basis. First of all, nobody asked Israel to go back to those lines. The demand is that those lines be the basis for the talks. And they have been the basis for nearly every round of Israeli-Palestinian talks up to now. That’s why we keep on hearing about 92%, 98%, etc. 92% of what? The territories as they were before 1967.
Whopper No. 2: The 1967 border isn’t a peace border, it’s a war border. Israel was subjected to constant war before it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. No — actually Israel had very little war on its borders before 1967, and lots and lots of wars on its borders and inside its “borders” since 1967.
Whopper No. 3: Israel can’t talk to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, because Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. By that logic, the Palestinians can’t talk to an Israeli government that includes Yisrael Beiteinu, which openly rejects peace, and HaBayit HaYehudi-The Jewish Home, which claims that the West Bank is part of Israel.
Some more details about these three Whoppers, plus a theory that Obama is endorsing the 1967 borders because he can’t get Bibi to do so openly and it’s the only way to get the Palestinians back to the table, after the jump:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed his cabinet ministers to stick to a single message regarding the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, Israel’s Channel 10 News reports on its Nana-10 website. The message: “there is no possible positive component in the reconciliation agreement.” That’s right:Cabinet ministers are forbidden even to speculate on any conceivable upside.
You can tell he cares about this, because he rarely makes any effort to rein in his cabinet. His foreign minister, alert readers recall, got up in front of the United Nations General Assembly last fall and laid out a foreign policy vision radically at odds with the prime minister’s, including exchanges of population in a future peace agreement, which he said was decades away. He didn’t even get a slap on the wrist—just a laconic statement from Bibi’s office that the prime minister, not the foreign minister, articulates the country’s foreign policy. Which is a weird thought in itself. Moreover, the interior minister repeatedly attacked the settlement construction freeze that the prime minister had imposed last year.
So this is something Bibi cares about. Unlike gestures toward peace which he makes in response to American pressure, and which his ministers attack mercilessly without consequences. He really doesn’t want it suggested that there could possibly be an upside to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.
It’s not like he can keep the lid on things forever. Abu Mazen, a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas, has said repeatedly in the last few days that he, not Hamas, is in charge of foreign policy, that he still wants to negotiate and make peace with Israel, he still sees Bibi as his partner. He’s even said that the pact calls for elections in a year; if Fatah wins, it should end Hamas control of Gaza. Bibi can’t keep that from the Israeli public, but maybe he can prevent his ministers from smiling when they hear it.
Well, maybe you can’t keep Abu Mazen’s words totally concealed from the public, but you sure can try. David Bedein, an American-born settler activist and head of what he calls the Israel Resource News Agency (and very nice guy and good friend when he’s not talking politics), sent out a mass email tonight furiously attacking the JTA for its report on what Abu Mazen is saying. He’s mad that JTA reported the news without spinning like a good Jew should.
Boy oh boy, Jews say the darnedest things, don’t they? You’ve got to love it. We’ve been hearing for years now that the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas isn’t capable of making peace with Israel even if it wants to because, among other things, it doesn’t speak for Hamas, which controls Gaza (see here, here and here, for example).
It’s a bit confusing, I know, but life is like that. For the moment, the best response would be to make sure they put air-sickness bags in front of the seats in shul alongside the chumashim tomorrow morning, in case congregants start to experience vertigo from the sudden, abrupt shifts in position..
It’s like the old joke about the beggar who asks the rabbi for a ruble to buy a meal. Later that day the rabbi walks past the inn and sees the beggar eating a big slice of cake. “This is how you waste my money?!” the rabbi demands. “Excuse me,” the beggar replies. “Yesterday I couldn’t eat cake because I had no money. Today I have money but you tell me I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
Now, as soon as the deal was announced yesterday, my mailbox started filling up with evidence that it had killed any hopes for the peace process, which presumably was thriving up to now. Exhibit A was this statement by Mahmoud a-Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister, who said it would “not be possible for the interim national government to participate or bet on or work on the peace process with Israel.” The morning after (today) reinforcements started arriving in the form of links to this statement by Zahar’s boss, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, calling on Fatah to renounce its recognition of “the Zionist entity.”
On second thought, though, this actually indicates that stopping the peace process was not part of deal. If it were, Haniyeh wouldn’t need to be asking for it now.
Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to the Obama White House this week gives us an opportunity to watch history unfold. Or unravel. It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s like that old Palmach song said, Rabotai, ha-historia hozeret (“Folks, history repeats itself”).
On the eve of the summit, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs is beating up on President Obama for failing to reaffirm George W. Bush’s April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon. Bush had written that it was “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The president was endorsing Israel’s goal of keeping the major West Bank settlement blocs as part of the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
In reality, Bush wasn’t saying anything the Palestinians themselves hadn’t said. Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas said as much just the other day in an on-the-record interview with Israeli reporters. As the Jerusalem Post put it in its version of the interview, “Abbas said that in principle, the Palestinians have agreed to alterations in the 1967 border, as long as it was done on a one-to-one ratio.” Incidentally, Abbas has embraced that position as far back as his 1995 talks with Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin.
Bush’s letter endorsed the idea of redrawing the border as a likely outcome of negotiations. The assumption was that the Palestinians could be expected to give Israel that reasonably desired outcome — as part of an agreement in which Israel gives the Palestinians an equally reasonably desired outcome.
So what’s JINSA’s beef?
In broad terms, JINSA is taking up a line that’s being touted by various voices on the Israeli right as the back-and-forth heats up: that Israel should receive its key demand on settlements before the actual negotiations begin. That way Israel can sit down and start negotiating from there. In other words, give me what I want in advance, and then we can sit down and discuss who’s willing to give up what.
In effect, the Israeli right doesn’t want Israel to have negotiate its relations with its neighbors on its own. It wants America to impose a solution. Of course JINSA wouldn’t put it that way.
Maariv published a story (in Hebrew – my translation is below) on Monday, January 4, by its top political correspondent, Ben Caspit outlining what is described as a detailed American initiative to reconvene Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and reach a permanent agreement in two years. What is particularly surprising is the clear implication that Washington has Netanyahu’s consent to enter a negotiation that will result in a return virtually to the 1967 borders.
The Jerusalem Post also reported the purported American plan, giving less detail but adding that it had received Egyptian confirmation (Caspit’s story cites no sources). The Post also quotes Bibi as saying there is “no truth” in media reports that he has agreed to “certain viewpoints, plans and border lines.”
Read on for Caspit’s full report on the American plan, translated into English:
The Nobel committee may not have done President Obama much of a favor in awarding him the Peace Prize. At best it’s a double-edged sword. As Yediot Ahronot’s Washington correspondent Yitzhak Ben-Horin points out in a smart news analysis on the paper’s Ynet Web site (in Hebrew — not yet translated into English as I post this), the prize is apparently intended to encourage Obama’s efforts on the international scene. But it could very well boomerang on him back home by sparking ridicule and deepening public skepticism toward him.
Most of the ridicule of the prize is off-base. As admirers and critics alike are pointing out, the peace prize has been used over time in two different ways, sometimes to honor achievements and sometimes to recognize efforts in hopes of encouraging them and moving them along. The mere fact of Obama’s winning the presidency on a platform of multilateralism abroad and a stronger welfare state at home has changed the nature of discussion around the world. America came to be viewed during the Bush years as an obstacle to human progress in countless areas where it very much counts, particularly reducing tensions between the West and Islam and addressing climate change. America is now part of the game. There’s hope once again for progress on basic global crises. That itself is an accomplishment.
Still, it’s at home that his legacy will ultimately be determined. The American right tends to take the Nobel Peace Prize as a badge of shame, in line with its general views of Europe, the United Nations, multilateralism and the rest. Will ridicule of Obama’s prize hurt him politically and slow his legislative agenda? That’s the core question right now. He needs to pass credible health reform or he’ll lose momentum and credibility on every other front. He needs to find a way to get the economy moving on the ground, where it counts, in employment and access to credit. He needs to pass climate change legislation, or the whole Kyoto-Copenhagen will stall once again.
Speaking of Obama’s credibility, it’s worth checking out this essential analysis of the current moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations by Haaretz’s Aluf Benn. Among other things, Benn argues that the administration’s efforts to deflect the Goldstone report effectively touched off the latest rioting in Jerusalem. The administration bluntly pressured Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority not to push for action on the report in the U.N. Human Rights Council. That badly weakened Abbas politically. The Jerusalem riots are the response, the Palestinian Authority’s way of showing its public that it still knows how to stand up to Israel.
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