The latest episode in the Barack-Bibi melodrama is definitely a dramatic victory, but it is far from clear who won the victory. U.S. President Obama chose the battle field or framed the issue when he announced, or was understood to announce, that Israel would have to withdraw to pre-1967 lines in order to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.
This announcement heralded the usual cannonade of slogans from pro-Israel and anti-Israel partisans, including an explanation from Mr. Krauthammer, of “What Obama did to Israel” and many others. The scene became as tumultuous as the Battle of Borodino. Nobody could be quite certain of what was happening, and they will not be certain for a long time. Mr. Obama had worked very hard to give the impression that the major issue confronting Israeli-Palestinian peace was the nature of Israel’s final borders, and the major obstacle to peace is Israeli refusal to grant some Palestinian demands. In a speech before the U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed Israeli refusal to withdraw to the lines of June 4, 1967. Netanyahu, in effect, validated Obama’s thesis, and confirmed the image of a stubborn and land-hungry Israel that refuses to make concessions for peace. This speech must be counted as an achievement. Analysts may not have liked it, but the Israeli public was enthusiastic. Netanyahu had beaten America’s best politician in his own back yard.
This speech will be remembered both for its tactical brilliance and for its long-term strategic value, and will earn a place in history alongside another tactical masterstroke, the attack perpetrated for imperial Japan by Admiral Yamamoto on the United States Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor. As Benny Morris pointed out, the discussion of Israel-Palestinian peace terms is a kind of shadow-boxing. The Palestinians will never recognize a Jewish state within any borders. As “moderate” Palestinian President Abbas made clear recently, the “moderate Palestinians” believe they share no responsibility for their 1948 “Nakba” and that the evil Zionists should be punished for their “war crimes.” Any “peace terms” they offer would suit this viewpoint.
The issue that was really before us from the beginning was not the nature of Israeli concessions or the nature of peace. The issue was that the Palestinians have decided arbitrarily to change the principles of the peace process, which should have resulted in a negotiated settlement. First the United States, and now Israel, have been gulled into the game according to the new rules, a brilliant Palestinian victory. It is all done with such proficiency and such a seamless finish that nobody in Israel or the United States noticed. Both countries have been outmaneuvered by foreign diplomacy, but each considers that it won a great “victory.”
It was not long before the speech rhetoric was translated into diplomatic reality in another Israeli “victory.” Alone among G-8 members, Canada defended Israel’s hypothetical right not to withdraw to pre-1967 borders, responding loyally, so it seemed, to an Israeli request. By this time, of course, nobody even noticed that the G-8 should not be setting borders in the Middle East.
The beginning of the “process” was an American and Israeli-led diplomatic move in which peace agreements would be reached by negotiation. The end of the process is a modern-day Munich conference. France and Russia will lead a punitive and coercive U.N. procedure that will create a Palestinian state that is revanchist in principle and has no treaty obligations to Israel. The terms of the negotiation were always clear: Nobody would have to agree to anything unless they thought it would advance peace, and no Palestinian state could be created without a peace treaty. This formulation did not suit the Palestinians, who have no interest in signing a peace agreement with Israel. They sought to derail the process in various ways, such as creation of a state using the rubber-stamp pro-Arab U.N. majority or debating the issues in fora that world be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and amenable to Arab oil blackmail such as the G-20 or G-8. Russia, France, China and perhaps Iran could hardly pass up such a golden opportunity to wrest leadership of the peace process from the Americans. Obama and Netanyahu complied. Palestinian strategy has been to set Israel and the United States, and their two leaders, against each other. This robs each country of its only natural ally in the Middle East and hands the Palestinians and the Europeans a tremendous advantage. Their roles are designed by Palestinians who understand how Netanyahu and Obama will react in every situation. Netanyahu is made to undercut Obama. Obama undercuts Netanyahu, but the local pundits are not impressed.
Obama cannot resist tradiing Israeli concessions for Arab support. But after Obama’s “anti-Israel” speech, designed to curry favor with Arab opinion, Lamis Andoni wrote in Al Jazeera: “Obama to Israel: Take whatever you want.” Anything short of offering to exterminate the Jewish population of Israel would be met by the same sort of reception. The U.S. cannot win a diplomatic advantage by forcing Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, but Obama has not learned that.
Netanyahu, for his part, cannot resist currying favor with the Israeli right. He could not refrain from commenting on the kind of concessions Israel would not make in the hypothetical case that Palestinians ever agreed to peace. Palestinian diplomats know that they can count on these reflex reactions to pit the Israeli government against the Americans and make them both work against their own interests in the Middle East without realizing it.