Who won the Netanyahu-Obama showdown? How about ‘nobody?’
People keep asking me: in a frenzied few days of speech making, lobbying and diplomacy in Washington, who came out on top – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or President Barack Obama? (see my story on the week’s events here.)
In a sense, it depends on what your definition of “win” is. Bibi can return to Jerusalem and tell his coalition partners that he didn’t back down to that nasty Barack Obama; the President can tell U.S. partners around the world that he really does want to get the peace process moving again, and to do that he was willing to risk the ire of the pro-Israel lobby here to tell some hard truths.
But actually, it seems to me, everybody emerged as a loser.
Sure, Obama uttered the dread words “1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps,” but he gave no hint that he has any plans to go beyond that – say, with new U.S. initiative, or new bridging proposals, or a new special envoy, or a new anything.
He took his best rhetorical shot without any apparent plan on how to capitalize on it, and the result is just more mistrust in the U.S.-Israel relationship, more skepticism around the world.
Netanyahu gave a great speech in the Capitol that had House and Senate members leaping to their feet like hyperactive jack-in-the-boxes and cheering him like a rock star.
But Congress doesn’t make foreign policy, or even have that much influence. The net result of his visit was probably more distrust between the Israeli leader and the President, and that’s what really counts in diplomacy.
I give Netanyahu credit for a speech that avoided overt partisanship, but there’s little question his visit and the controversies surrounding it added to the intense partisanship enveloping the Israel issue – a net loss for Israel, which depends on the broadest possible support to keep the U.S.-Israel relationship strong despite the ebb and flow of American politics.
On the surface, it would seem that the biggest winners are the Palestinians who have lost interest in direct talks with Israel, and plan instead to wage a global PR war, using the United Nations as an enabler. September, when they plan to unilaterally declare statehood and win recognition of their pseudo state from the international body, looms larger than ever, and despite President Obama’s promise that his administration would do everything possible to head off the Palestinian effort, I suspect confidence that he can do that is at low ebb.
But since the only route to real statehood is through direct negotiations, it’s hard to see how they can chalk up this week’s diplomatic hubbub as a win in any real sense.
Politically, the week’s events were a short-term victory for Netanyahu if the goal was to keep his coalition together and fend off his aggressive foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Longer term, the results are unclear. If he is seen by Israeli voters as mismanaging U.S.-Israel relations – as he was once before – he could rue the day he became the Middle East’s new “Dr. No,” as Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt put it.
Politically, it was a loss for Obama, but probably not a very costly one.
He didn’t satisfy pro-Israel Jews who doubt his commitment to Israel, he didn’t satisfy the doves, who want to see a plan and some serious action, not just talk. But then again, it’s unlikely Middle East policy will be much more than a blip in next year’s election, despite the furor in pro-Israel circles.
The Republicans who keep hoping to get a bigger share of the Jewish vote plan to run with a highly edited version of his ’67 borders comment in next year’s campaigns – conveniently omitting the part about mutually agreed land swaps – think they have a winning issue this time around. Maybe – but only with a very small percentage of the Jewish vote that is like to swayed by arguments Obama is the “worst president ever” for Israel.
But all this is fluff. The bottom line question is this: did this week’s diplomatic flurry contribute to the goal of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that provides real security for Israel and satisfies Palestinian desires for real statehood?
Despite the hoopla, I’d have to say the answer is no.