Holding the Line

Obama insinuated that, despite the recent renewal of the Fatah-Hamas national unity agreement, Israel should resume negotiations with a Palestinian Authority, even though Hamas will not allow it to sign a permanent peace agreement with Israel. Obama also wants Israel to satisfy Palestinian territorial demands without a simultaneous agreement before reaching agreement on the status of Yerushalayim and the Arab demand for a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

 

Furthermore, while Obama insists that he is committed to maintaining Israel’s security, he has rejected Netanyahu’s call for a permanent Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, to protect against the threat of an invasion by Arab enemies to the east.

 

The White House initially sought to conceal Obama’s intention to declare the ‘67 borders as the starting point for Israeli-Palestinian territorial negotiations. Israel was given only a few hours of advance notice that this change in the official US position on the peace negotiations would be in his speech, and responded with a vigorous protest. Netanyahu launched an all out lobbying campaign for the removal of the call for Israel to return to its pre-‘67 borders from the text of Obama’s speech, but to no avail.

 

ANGRY PHONE CALL

 

The media reported an angry phone conversation between Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the speech, in which she flatly rejected his demands that the speech be changed. This is yet another indication that Clinton and Obama see eye to eye vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians. It appears that her vigorous support for Israel while she served as a US senator from New York may not have been as sincere as her many Jewish supporters wanted to believe at the time.

 

Obama also suggested in his speech that it would be feasible to separate the negotiations over borders and security arrangements from the ultimate fate of Yerushalayim and the Palestinian refugees. Obama suggested that those issues could remain unresolved for now.

 

Later the White House attempted to revise what he said, implying that the furor was due to the fact that most of the speech dealt with the Arab revolt, and mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian revolt only in passing. But in fact, Obama’s restatement of the US position on Israel was almost 1000 words long, and it was hostile to Israeli interests both with regard to what it said, and what it didn’t say.

 

OBAMA DICTATING THE TERMS

 

Perhaps the most cynical statement in Obama’s speech was that, “ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them — not by the United States; not by anybody else.” Obama then contradicted that statement by specifying the details of the outcome he expects from the peace negotiations, claiming that they represented “what everyone knows.” They went far beyond the accepted formula of “a lasting peace [which] will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.”

 

Obama dictated his own terms for the agreement, saying, “we believe 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.”

 

While the pre-‘67 lines have long served as a historic reference point, Israel has never accepted them as a permanent boundary. In fact, the deliberately ambiguous language of the UN Security Council resolutions which ended the Six Day War in 1967, and which talk about an eventual Israeli withdrawal from territories it conquered, does not call for a return to the previous border lines. A 2004 letter sent by President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explicitly calls for the drawing of a new border which reflects the reality of the larger West Bank settlements.

 

OBAMA ENDORSING THE ARAB DEMANDS

 

By contrast, Obama’s statement was almost a word for word endorsement of the rigid Arab territorial position since 1967, as well as Abbas’ demands that the talks on boundaries must start from the offer which former prime minister Olmert made just before Abbas walked away from the negotiations in September, 2008. At that time, Olmert made the most generous territorial offer to the Palestinians ever proposed by an Israeli prime minister. But it was conditioned, as always, upon Palestinian acceptance of specific Israeli demands in return. Abbas never formally accepted Olmert’s offer, and did not even present a Palestinian counter-offer. Abbas also rejected US pleas that he at least publicly accept Olmert’s offer in principle, so that it could serve as a starting point for a later resumption in talks.

 

Abbas never resumed the peace talks with Olmert’s successor, Tzipi Livni. When Netanyahu won the election in 2009, he took Olmert’s offer off the table, and presented his own formula for resuming the talks. However, when Obama sought to revive the peace talks, Abbas suddenly insisted that Olmert’s territorial offer had to be their starting point, minus, of course, the reciprocal Palestinian concessions that had been demanded by Olmert.

 

CUSHIONING THE BLOW

 

In his speech, Obama cushioned the impact of his demand for a return to the ‘67 borders by endorsing other aspects of Netanyahu’s peace proposal, including the de-militarization of the Palestinian state, and mutual recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

 

At the same time, Obama rejected Israel’s demand that any peace agreement include a continued Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. Obama said that there must be “full and phased withdrawal” of the Israeli army from the West Bank, and for a transition period to full Palestinian security control of the new state’s borders.

 

International reaction to Obama’s speech tended to ignore his endorsement of specific concession to Israel while focusing on his demand that Netanyahu accept the pre-‘67 borders as the starting point of the negotiations.

 

AN UNACCEPTABLE PROSPECT

 

That raises an unacceptable prospect for Israel. Were it to accept Obama’s proposal, the dispute with the Palestinians could continue even after the borders are set. In other words, Israel would be forced to give up its most important negotiating asset, the territory it won in the 1967 war, without ever reaching a final agreement with the Palestinians over Yerushalayim and refugees.

 

Obama’s suggestion “that moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair,” is both extremely naive and unrealistic, given the 17-year history of failed peace talks.

 

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, handled US negotiations with Israel during the Bush administration. He points out that Obama’s suggestion of separating the drawing of the border from resolving the status of Yerushalayim may simply not be practical. “In fact, the border is most in dispute near Yerushalayim, so achieving a border agreement without resolving Yerushalayim cannot work,” Abrams writes.

 

Some analysts suggest that Obama’s pro-Arab approach to the Palestinian issue was the result of influence by his pro-Palestinian friends in Chicago, when he was still an unknown Illinois state senator. There was a story in the media quoting one of those friends which said that after Obama started running for Senator, he told that friend not to be surprised to hear him making pro-Israel statements. But Obama assured him that he would only be making those statements for political reasons, and that he remained privately sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Apparently, those private beliefs have now come to the fore.

 

NETANYAHU FIRES BACK

 

Obama’s speech to an audience of State Department professionals, many of whom are known to be long-time supporters of the Arab position, was generally well received, both in the room and among Palestinian sympathizers in Europe.

 

However, Netanyahu quickly issued a strong response, rejecting several key points in Obama’s newly stated position. As he was boarding a plane to take him to a previously scheduled meeting with Obama in the Oval Office the next day, Netanyahu made it clear that Obama’s speech represented a drastic departure from previous US policies in support of Israel and Obama’s positions would compromise vital Israeli security interests.

 

Netanyahu said that a Palestinian state must not be created “at Israel’s expense.” He added that in his discussions with Obama he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of American commitments made to Israel in 2004 which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress.”

 

He was referring to commitments in a letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which stated that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949,” and which clearly stated that Israel could not be reasonably expected to grant a right of return to Palestinian refugees. Bush gave Sharon the letter in return for Sharon’s agreement to remove Israeli settlers from Gaza, and in order to help Sharon get the Israeli people to support it.

 

Netanyahu said that Bush’s letter was a clear indication that the US did not expect Israel “to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers [in the West Bank] beyond those lines.”

 

BYPASSING FINAL STATUS ISSUES WON’T WORK

 

Netanyahu also rejected Obama’s implication that final border could be drawn and security arrangements settled before the other final status issues are resolved. “Without a solution to the refugee issue by settling them outside of Israel, no territorial concessions will end the conflict.”

 

He insisted that for a meaningful peace agreement to be concluded, “the Palestinians, and not only the US, must recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.”

 

Unstated, but clearly a factor in Netanyahu’s strong reaction was the inclusion by Obama of an old irritant in his speech, his objections to Israel’s settlement activities.

 

In addition, there was concern over the omission by Obama of the three basic Quartet demands on Hamas which have been in place since the 2005 Palestinian legislative elections. They are that Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce the use of terrorism and violence, and abide by the previously signed Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF WHAT OBAMA LEFT OUT

 

Obama’s defenders suggest that those demands were implied by other sections of his speech. Obama did ask, referring to the Hamas unity agreement with Fatah, “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” But then he suggested that the US and its “Quartet partners. . . will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse,” suggesting to some that the Quartet’s demands of Hamas might ultimately be bypassed. This adds significance to Obama’s failure to mention the Quartet demands elsewhere in the speech.

 

Obama refused Netanyahu’s request to include any of the language from Bush’s 2004 letter supporting Israel’s demands in his speech. This added to the impression that the speech was a significant departure from prior US Middle East policy.

 

In light of Obama’s attempt to dictate new ground rules for future negotiations, Netanyahu felt justified in accusing him of undermining Israel’s diplomatic position.

 

REACTION IN ISRAEL

 

Obama’s open demand on Israel to return to its ‘67 border had the effect of uniting Israeli political opinion behind Netanyahu’s strong response. Even most left wing Israeli political figures could not support the perceived call for a return to the ’67 borders. By re-asserting the primacy of Israel’s security interests, and retaining its right to determine its diplomatic position, Netanyahu silenced critics on his right, who openly feared that he would fold under pressure from the White House.

 

Netanyahu’s most left-wing coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, tried to minimize the significance of the speech, suggesting that the differences between the US and Israeli were not as great as they might seem. “I don’t think that the president’s speech was such a bad thing,” Barak said. “I think it’s good that the prime minister brought attention to the fact that we expect the recognition of settlement blocs and that we want the refugees to be absorbed within the Palestinian state.

 

“I don’t think that the president said it was necessary to return to the 1967 lines, but rather that we need to start the discussion based on the 1967 borders,” Barak said, adding, “I think the Americans know the nuances of our positions well.”

 

Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon even went so far as to suggest that, “Obama’s speech was positive for Israel, since he remained committed to Israel as a Jewish state and even demanded that the Palestinians explain the reconciliation agreement with Hamas,” Ayalon said.

 

NASTY MEDIA ATTACKS

 

A nastier aspect of the confrontation was the attempt by the White House to smear Netanyahu with not-for-attribution leaks to the media.

 

A New York Times story said that Obama has told his aides that he does not believe that Netanyahu is capable of making peace, and confirms previous reports that the date of Obama’s Middle East speech was advanced to upstage Netanyahu’s address to both houses of Congress this week.

 

The face-to-face meeting between Obama and Netanyahu at the White House the next day was, by most accounts, a tense and uncomfortable confrontation, despite efforts by both men to diplomatically paper over the open rift between them in the press.

 

Netanyahu began his comments by expressing support for Obama’s efforts to foster “the spread of democracy in the Middle East,” and his “commitment to Israel’s security,” as well as his “efforts to advance the peace process.”

 

NETANYAHU EXPLAINS THE HARD REALITIES

 

But Netanyahu went on to declare “that a peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle Eastern reality, and that the only peace that will endure is one that is based on reality, on unshakeable facts.

 

“I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities. The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines — because these lines are indefensible; because they don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. . .

 

“We can’t go back to those indefensible lines, and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan. . .

 

“The second is that Israel cannot negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas. . .a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction. It’s fired thousands of rockets on our cities, on our children. It’s recently fired an anti-tank rocket at a yellow school bus, killing a 16-year-old boy. And Hamas has just attacked you, Mr. President, and the United States for ridding the world of bin Laden.

 

“Israel obviously cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda.

 

ABBAS MUST CHOOSE

 

“I think President Abbas has a simple choice. He has to decide if he. . . keeps his pact with Hamas, or makes peace with Israel. . .

 

“The third reality is that the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state, but certainly not in the borders of Israel. . .

 

“Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen. The Palestinian refugee problem has to be resolved. It can be resolved, and it will be resolved if the Palestinians choose to do so in a Palestinian state.”

 

Netanyahu suggested that it was ridiculous to ask Israel to take in grandchildren of refugees from a war which took place 63 years ago, “thereby wiping out Israel’s future as a Jewish state.”

 

Obama and Netanyahu faced reporters in the traditional White House photo-op after a two-hour meeting on Friday. The encounter lasted much longer than had been originally scheduled. Few believed that, behind closed doors, the two men were having a pleasant discussion.

 

WHITE HOUSE COMPLAINTS ABOUT BIBI

 

Reporters noted the stiff and unfriendly body language evident in both men during their photo op. That impression was quickly confirmed when Obama administration officials renewed their whispering campaign against Netanyahu. They were angered by Netanyahu’s “chutzpah” of lecturing Obama on Israeli history in front of the media, and suggesting that Obama’s proposals for renewing peace talks were unrealistic.

 

In fact, Netanyahu’s behavior during the White House photo op was comparatively mild compared to the lengths to which the Obama administration went during earlier visits to embarrass the prime minister. Obama denied him the basic courtesies extended to visiting foreign heads of state. During one visit, Obama broke off a meeting with Netanyahu in order to eat a meal with his children. Obama then sent him from the White House without even stopping to pose for the customary Oval Office photo op.

 

During the bitter dispute over the construction freeze, the White House press secretary actually belittled Netanyahu to reporters. On another occasion, the White House leaked details of a phone call in which Secretary of State Clinton berated Netanyahu over the same issue.

 

By comparison, Netanyahu’s refusal last Friday to allow himself to be bullied into accepting Obama’s ‘67 border demands, and his calm restatement of the reasons why Israel cannot agree to those demands was tactful compared to the openly insulting treatment that he has received at the Obama White House in the past.

 

REPUBLICAN REACTION

 

The White House spent the next several days attempting to “explain” and soften Obama’s position, in the wake of hardening Jewish and Republican opposition to his demand that Israel return to the ‘67 borders.

 

“President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. “He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace.”

 

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty called Obama’s call for Israel to return to its pre-‘67 borders “a mistaken and dangerous demand. . . At this time of upheaval in the Middle East, it’s never been more important for America to stand strong for Israel and for a united Yerushalayim.”

 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, said, “the president’s habit of drawing a moral equivalence between the actions of the Palestinians and the Israelis while assessing blame for the conflict is, in and of itself, harmful to the prospect for peace.

 

OBAMA MISSED THE MOMENT AND THE OPPORTUNITY

 

“By keeping the burden and thus the spotlight on Israel, the President is only giving the Palestinian Authority more incentive to carry on its unhelpful game of sidestepping negotiations and failing to put an end to terrorism. Creating another Palestinian terror state on Israel’s borders is something that none of us want. The White House referred to Obama’s State Department speech as a ‘Moment of Opportunity,’ and I’m disappointed that the President’s remarks missed both the moment and the opportunity.”

 

Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said, “the president’s reference to pre-1967 borders as the basis for peace undermines our ally Israel’s negotiating position, demonstrates insensitivity to the security threats Israel faces on a daily basis, and ignores the historical context that has shaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than 60 years.”

 

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized Obama for imposing “new pressure on Israel to make concessions on its borders,” without demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

 

Prominent Jewish Democrats defended Obama’s speech. Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, denied that it was, “intended to be a comprehensive statement on all aspects of Israeli-Palestinian relations or US relations with both parties. For example, I have full confidence that the administration would veto a unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN Security Council.” But the tension that the speech created, and the concern it generated over the future of Israeli-US relations was undeniable.

 

TRIGGERING THE CONFRONTATION

 

The crisis in US-Israeli relations was precipitated by two recent developments.

 

The first is the diplomatic traction gained by an Arab initiative to seek diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian state and its territorial claims on the entire West Bank and Yerushalayim from the United Nations when the next General Assembly convenes in September.

 

The initiative means that the Arabs have permanently abandoned the effort to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, and are now pursuing an effort to delegitimize Israel in the diplomatic community. It also amounts to a rejection of both the spirit and provisions of the Oslo peace accords, which established the Palestinian Authority and a peaceful process for the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute.

 

The second development has been the so-called “Arab Spring” uprising across the Middle East, which has challenged the legitimacy of many of the region’s more despotic Arab regimes, and found the United States, as often as not, in an uneasy and embarrassing alliance with the despots, as these Arab leaders have sought to put down these challenges to their authority, often with the use of deadly military force and ruthless totalitarian persecution.

 

THE ARAB SPRING HAS STALLED

 

The Arab Spring has recently stalled, in part because the US has failed to use its full influence in support of the initial demands of the Arab people for freedom and government, and, when those demands have been rejected, the overthrow of the despotic regimes.

 

The process did result in the overthrow of long-standing dictatorships in the first two countries to experience major protests, Tunisia and Egypt. However, a tardy and reluctant US response to the initial protests in Libya touched off a civil war which has now settled down into a bloody stalemate, and the possibility that it could result in the breakup of the country.

 

In Yemen, a US-backed dictator has been allowed to cling to power, and to reject an agreement negotiated by neighboring Arab states for a peaceful transition of power. In Syria, the brutal repression by the regime of Bashar Assad of the spreading Syrian democracy movement has elicited only belated and reluctant US protests, even though the death toll due to government attacks on protesters has now exceeded the number killed during the revolt in Egypt, with no end in sight.

 

US INFLUENCE WANING

 

The result of these developments has been a reduction in the influence of the US in the region, which would be further reduced by the demise of the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process. These developments also directly impact President Obama’s personal prestige. His clumsy efforts to impose a construction freeze on Israel in 2009, followed by a failed attempt last year to restart direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have led to the Arab decision to abandon the negotiating process. The stalemate which has developed in the Libyan civil war is largely due to the initial delay in the US agreeing to lead a military intervention, and the limited role which the US has played in support of the Libyan rebels after turning over the leadership of the air support operation to NATO.

 

Obama has been trying to re-assert US authority in the region, capitalizing on the killing of Osama bin Laden. That led to what had been touted by the White House as a major speech re-launching Obama’s outreach efforts to the Muslim world which began with his speech at Cairo University in June, 2009. The timing of the speech was dictated, to some extent, by Israel’s reaction to the Arab diplomatic offensive against it. Because the White House had been slow and reluctant to express its open opposition to the effort by the Arab states to gather support for the UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu sought to force the issue, by making a high profile US appearance before both houses of Congress.

 

AN OVERDUE WARNING TO THE PALESTINIANS

 

Obama’s clear warning to the Palestinians concerning their UN recognition initiative was long overdue. He said, “Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.” While it had taken much too long for Obama to come out and say it so clearly, the statement itself was welcomed.

 

However, the controversy over Obama’s call for Israel’s return to the pre-‘67 borders proved to be a mixed blessing for the White House. Internationally, it played well, confirming the predominant attitude in Europe towards the peace process, and the tendency to overlook the threat to Israel from concessions to Arab demands.

 

IMPACT ON OBAMA’S REELECTION

 

The turmoil which the State Department speech created in US-Israel relations prompted some concern within Obama’s re-election operation, which is relying on continued strong support from Jewish contributors.

 

This explains the sharp contrast in both tone and content between Obama’s provocative message last week, and his soothing words to the targeted audience of Jewish political activists and campaign contributors paying close attention to his remarks at the AIPAC conference in Washington Sunday.

 

In his AIPAC speech, Obama changed the emphasis of his remarks, putting much more stress on his call for “land swaps” in determining how the new borders between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will depart from the 1967 lines.

 

“By definition, it means that the parties themselves—Israelis and Palestinians—will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967,” Obama said, in an effort to soothe the fears of AIPAC’s pro-Israel advocates that his proposal would ultimately compromise Israel’s security.

 

He also sought to convince his audience that, “there was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous US administrations,” meaning those of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He noted that their pursuit of a peace agreement all involved proposals which used the pre-‘67 borders as a baseline, in one way or another, in the discussions of territorial issues.

 

In another notable departure from his State Department speech, Obama spelled out a demand that Hamas meet the three Quartet conditions for recognition and peace-making with Israel.

 

AIPAC STATEMENTS LIKELY TO BE IGNORED

 

Democrats suggested that the president’s AIPAC remarks proved that his earlier speech did not pose a threat to Israel’s interests. Others suggested that the rest of the world would ignore whatever Obama said to AIPAC. It would be discounted as merely another politician running for office telling an important constituency what he knew they very much wanted to hear. On the other hand, the world would be more apt to believe that Obama was expressing his core beliefs in his State Department speech.

 

Obama sought to convince the AIPAC audience that his effort to jump start the negotiating process with his own border proposal is the only way to head off the move by the PA to win UN recognition in September, which has the potential to destabilize the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and completely destroy any hope for a negotiated settlement. It also had the potential of turning Israel into an international pariah.

 

THE OLD DEMOGRAPHIC ARGUMENT

 

Obama then trotted out Olmert’s old demographic argument for rushing into a peace agreement. He claimed that Arab population growth posed a threat to Israel’s Jewish majority unless an agreement on establishing a Palestinian state could be reached quickly. However, the Arab census numbers behind that theory have always been suspect, and trying to use that argument today ignores the fact that the Gaza disengagement has effectively cut the Palestinian population under direct Israeli control by about a third.

 

The president also argued that the ferment sweeping the region today made the effort to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement even more urgent. Israeli strategists see it differently. They suggest that it would be foolish for Israel to make any moves that could impact the security of its borders until the ramifications of the transition of power in Egypt are clear, as well as the outcome of the current ferment in Syria.

 

ISRAEL’S ENEMIES STILL POSE A THREAT

 

Finally, there is the ongoing worry about the looming Iranian nuclear threat. Obama attempted to address all of these concerns by assuring AIPAC that he remains committed to preserving Israel’s military edge by continuing billions of dollars in annual US military aid. He received standing ovations when he acknowledged that both Iran’s nuclear program and Hamas pose existential threats to Israel.

 

These developments actually argue against Israel giving in to Arab demands, thereby weakening its strategic position.

 

Israel’s leaders are convinced that European hopes that the unity deal with Fatah will somehow turn Hamas into an organization willing to make peace with Israel are naive. They believe that this unity deal will last no longer than the one which collapsed with the expulsion of Fatah from Gaza three years ago.

 

In addition, a peace deal with the Palestinians is likely to have no effect at all on the Iranian nuclear threat, or the missile threat from Hezbollah to the north.

 

Certainly, those threats make maintaining a good relationship with the US vital to Israel, but ultimately, they have little or nothing to do with the fate of the stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

 

MENDING FENCES, FOR NOW

 

Following Obama’s address to AIPAC, Netanyahu moved to defuse their dispute, by issuing a statement declaring, “I share the President’s wish to promote peace and I appreciate his past and present efforts to achieve this goal. I am determined to work with President Obama in order to find ways to resume the peace negotiations. Peace is a vital necessity for us all.”

 

In his own address to AIPAC on Monday, Netanyahu made only a passing reference to his dispute with Obama, saying that any peace agreement, “must leave Israel with security, and therefore Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines.” The statement triggered a loud round of applause from the AIPAC audience.

 

He also noted that foreign aid is not a popular issue during difficult economic times, “so I want to thank the President and Congress for providing Israel with vital assistance so that Israel can defend itself by itself.”

 

NETANYAHU ADDRESSES CONGRESS

 

On Tuesday, Netanyahu sounded the same harmonious themes in his address to a joint session of Congress. He said that the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East was the unwillingness of the Palestinians to accept Israel. He emphasized, however, that if the Palestinians did prove to be willing peace partners, he was prepared to be generous in terms of drawing boundaries for the new Palestinian state, even if that meant giving up some West Bank settlements, as long as Israel’s security needs were not compromised.

 

The seemingly conciliatory later statements by both Obama and Netanyahu represent only tactical retreats by both leaders. They share a common interest in heading off UN recognition of the Palestinian State in September. President Obama knows he will need Jewish supporters to win re-election, but he remains clearly opposed to Israel’s claims to Yerushalayim and the West Bank.

 

Obama is also eager to encourage Israel’s leaders to accept the risks of forging a peace agreement with the Palestinians, while the Israelis are more fearful that the regional instability all around them could upset the security arrangements which enabled them to embark on the peace process in the first place.