9:54 am May. 20, 2011
Josh Benson: Do you think there's anything Barack Obama could have said in his big Middle East speech that would have elicited a different reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu, who almost immediately panned it?
Marc Tracy: In theory he could have not mentioned anything about '67 borders. More to the point, he could have basically ignored the conflict altogether. Lots of us thought he was going to do that, especially after yesterday's backgrounder, where essentially nothing was said about Israel.
It was telling. The speech had something like 1,100 words on the subject. The fact-sheet reporters got sent had just one tiny section on it. But the only thing Netanyahu is pointing to is the thing about the '67 borders, because there's literally nothing else he could possibly be upset about. (And a crucial nuance which everyone needs to be clear on is that Obama called for borders-with-swaps. So it wouldn't literally be the actual 1967 Green Line.)
Unless you count that maybe he wishes Obama had like continued to prop up Mubarak, and his embrace of the Arab Spring, which is arguably something Netanyahu sees as counter to Israeli interests, but certainly you couldn't have expected Obama to say anything different on that stuff.
Josh: How significant is the fact that Netanyahu finds himself to the right of some habitually right-leaning American Jewish groups in his reaction?
Marc: Well they do have different bases, and believe it or not Bibi's base is significantly more "right" than the Anti-Defamation League's. I consider myself a supporter of the ADL (with several reservations, like its position on Park51).
The real test of Obama's current round of Israel diplomacy is the AIPAC conference, I guess, which is Sunday through Tuesday, and which Obama is addressing Sunday. Participants have been instructed in advance not to boo.
The thing about AIPAC is, it almost definitionally backs Netanyahu, if only because he is the leader of Israel's government, and AIPAC backs Israel's government—that's not a knock on it, exactly, it's just what it does.
So it's not really "relevant" but I do think it indicates how out-of-step Netanyahu is and/or just how afraid he is of his shaky coalition back home, in which his party, Likud, the traditional Israeli party of the right, is one of the more centrist members.
Josh: So Netanyahu took the extraordinary (although not, I guess, for him) step of rebuking the leader of Israel's biggest ally for a not-objectionable speech primarily for the benefit of his domestic audience?
Marc: Well, sort of. I mean you're sort of in a chicken-and-egg situation here. It's all of our jobs to do this, right? It's Netanyahu's job to complain the borders were mentioned. It's my job to call Netanyahu an inflexible craven leader for doing so. And it's Obama's job to goad him with the borders comment before their White House meeting today. (Although I'd actually argue it is doing him a favor, because if Obama gives Netanyahu absolutely nothing to complain about, then the speech plays that much worse in the Arab world, which is the primary audience.)
The thing we don't know is the genesis of this section. Like it is BIZARRE for 1,100 words to make so little substantive news. Even if you count the '67 borders as news, that's only presuming there are negotiations coming up, and there aren't because Obama also gave Netanyahu the perfect (and valid) excuse to avoid them, namely, the new Fatah-Hamas alliance. In the run-up to the speech we assumed the speech would make no news on the Israeli-Palestinian front, both because the logic demanded that it not and becauses the backgrounder yesterday with senior administration officials didn't really talk about it.
Then about an hour before the speech you're hearing all this stuff about things that are going to happen, then Obama doesn't leave the White House until after the speech was scheduled to start, which it turns out might be because Netanyahu was screaming at Hillary on the phone beforehand.
What you wind up with is sort of a mish-mosh that isn't particularly groundbreaking, but you do have the '67 borders, which isn't news under any definition of news other than the definition that mainstream outlets use.
Like, this was the first instance of a U.S. president publicly and explicitly saying they should be the basis for negotations, with land swaps. But no one has ever thought otherwise, and Clinton said so in 2009, and it's been discussed privately by the past three administrations.
If you want a two-state solution, as both Obama and George W. Bush did, you are talking about the '67 borders, the Green Line. So in that sense it's incredibly unremarkable. But it's technically "news" and therefore provocative.
Josh: Well, right. That's the thing. It is enormous and trivial.
If you ask an Israel-supporting liberal like Jerry Nadler whether Obama's supposed to talk about settlements and borders he'll say it's a disaster because it pre-supposes the outcome of negotiations thereby giving Israel less leverage, and Palestinian leaders less reason to engage in bilateral negotiations.
So everyone knows what the actual deal is, but everyone's supposed to be speaking in code.
But as you say there's no one who believes a two-state solution is possible who doesn't also believe it will be something like the old-borders-plus-swaps scenario that Obama outlined in the speech. So in that context, how consequential was it that Obama officially made 1967 a baseline part of the conversation?
Marc: Well one thing I would say to Jerry Nadler is Obama barely talked about settlements, choosing instead to focus on borders—a major repudiation of the past two years of diplomacy, and a victory for Obama's more pro-Israel advisers. But the only way I could see it being consequential is if it is "news" enough for moderate Palestinians and it dissuades them from the U.N. course, in which case it will have been insanely brilliant diplomacy on Obama's part.
I mean, you will have some people saying and who have said that America has now fundamentally changed from being a passive broker to being an active participant, but, again, the '67 borders-with-swaps was absolutely always what a two-state solution was going to look like.
So, probably not. I think most likely is that the Palestinians continue with the U.N. track—the only thing that could derail that is a third intifada-type situation or some black swan event we haven't thought of—which come September will be a burst of symbolism and probably end with violence and, again, the resumption of the Palestinian civil war.
Josh: Was there anything revealing you found in the reaction of the various American-Jewish "leadership" groups?
Marc: Well the Simon Wiesenthal Center is my latest bête noire anyway, because they have taken the side of Dan Snyder, the evil owner of my beloved Redskins, against my beloved hometown weekly Washington City Paper. But they dropped the H-bomb on this one, H being the Holocaust, because we are Jews (although I guess Jews did invent the H-bomb). And it's a little more complex; they were making an Abba Eban reference.
Here's a typical statement: "B’nai B’rith is concerned that the president is prejudging the outcome of the peace process by publicly calling for pre-1967 borders as a basis for a Palestinian state, with land swaps. Discussion about this difficult issue should be reserved for direct negotiations between the parties."
Josh: Right, that's the Nadler line, more or less.
Marc: Oh, sure. I mean, any Congressional guy, or nearly any. Congress invited Bibi to address it.
The Obama administration's policy should not be confused with Congress'. And obviously there is the issue of Jewish donors.
Josh: Well, what about them? Notwithstanding whatever donor "outreach" by supporters of the administration remains to be done, aren't the loyalties of Jewish donors basically going to reflect the loyalties of Jewish voters, nearly 80 percent of whom voted for Obama in 2008?
Marc: I could present you with different polls showing different things. I would predict that Obama will lose more donor support than voter support going into 2012. Jews will vote for him.
Here he was speaking into the Arab world, which is great in a vacuum, of course. But he should visit Israel, or he should address Israelis in one of his speeches at least. The fact that he hasn't has been a little off-putting and weird. It would be so simple.
A trip would help. But even a speech directly addressing Israelis—that would actually help him with American Jews.