In a meeting that reportedly oozed with awkwardness, President Barack Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and Netanyahu apparently felt that with the cameras going it was a perfect place to offer Obama a “teachable moment.” Literally. With a lecture.
A smart move? Or one that will sour Israel’s critics here and abroad and prove to be unwise in dealing with the Obama administration. Moments such as this usually take place quietly, via diplomatic channels:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to think he needed to educate President Obama on some issues today, so in the Oval Office he described in some detail to the president a history of the refugee problem in the region dating back 63 years, as well as his view on the need for Israel to be able to defend itself in the context of thousands of years of Jewish suffering.
“We don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Netanyahu said to the president. “Because, Mr. President, history will not give the Jewish people another chance.”
Netanyahu, whose father is a retired academic, offered the president repeated history lessons, saying Jews have “been around for almost 4,000 years. We have experienced struggle and suffering like no other people. We’ve gone through expulsions and pogroms and massacres and the murder of millions. But I can say that even at the dearth of — even at the nadir of the valley of death, we never lost hope and we never lost our dream of reestablishing a sovereign state in our ancient homeland, the land of Israel.”
Yesterday, President Obama angered Netanyahu by — for the first time — stating as a matter of U.S. policy that “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.”
President Obama acknowledged this disagreement today, saying “obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language, and that’s going to happen between friends.”
President Obama invited reporters into the Oval Office after he and Netanyahu had spoken one on one for more than an hour and a half. Their discussions went past the scheduled time allotted to the point that they canceled their working lunch.
Here’s ABC’s report:
Here’s AP’s report which notes that Netanyahu wasted little time “shooting down” Obama’s comments from the day before:
Republicans have been attacking Obama due to his position — which many experts say is basically the same position that President George W. Bush had. The big difference: Bush had an “R” in front of his party identification and 2012 elections and the political jockeying that election year entails is paramount these days.
Here’s a cross section of reaction to Obama, Netanyahu and the latest developments swirling around the Middle East:
My hope, for what it’s worth, is to protect the possibility of a majority Jewish state to survive with its capital in Jerusalem for ever. I’m a Zionist. Always have been. And strongly so. I think Obama is doing his best to bring it about, primarily because it is America’s interest, but also because it is in Israel’s. And despite the hysteria from the Fox-Likud fringe, Obama’s words yesterday toward the Palestinians were stark, essentially putting Abbas on the spot on the Hamas charter, for example. And yet this leader of a foreign government thinks he can essentially dictate terms for an American president and attempt to corral the US Congress to side explicitly with a foreign leader over the American president in foreign policy.
Don’t push your luck, Bibi. Others have with Obama and they have learned that he is often more canny than they are with political jujitsu. Obama’s usual tactic: gently and subtly prompting his foes to self-destruct. I just hope that in this critical juncture in the Middle East, Netanyahu doesn’t take his country with him.
It was a stunning tableau, a President of the United States sitting back and glaring while the Prime Minister of Israel pushed back against the words made by the POTUS yesterday. Both parties made their presentations in friendly diplomatic words, but Netanyahu gave the President a “friendly” dressing down, his words were instructive and firm. You could tell by the body language that Bibi was letting the President know that he was not going to give in, and Obama was very angry….
….The Prime Minister proceeded to give the President a dose of reality, and the President gave the PM a dose of his unhappy glare. …I think Obama got his answer and it was vintage Netanyahu.
Normally I would object to a foreign to School the President of the United States, but in this case it was justified. This happened in response to President Obama throwing Israel under the bus. And unilaterally ripping up an agreement made between Israel and the United States. What made it even worse was that Obama’s people had just assured the Israeli leader that the 1967 borders would not be brought up during the speech. Keeping that in mind perhaps Bibi was a little too soft on the POTUS.
I’m a conservative, a strong friend and supporter of Israel, and I like the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But like The Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg, I was taken aback by Bibi’s statement of disrespect for President Obama…
…That’s not a smart move on Bibi’s part, because disrespecting our president compels American Israeli supporters such as myself to rally to Obama’s side.
It’s obvious that Netanyahu and Obama don’t like each other. Their hostility dates back to Obama’s early days in office when Obama called on Netanyahu to halt Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Netanyahu refused.
Both men have legitimate concerns. However, Netanyahu does himself and Israel no favors when he publicly disrespects our president.
—The Atlantic’s Jeffry Goldberg’s post got a lot of attention and needs to be read in full. Here’s part of it:
For whatever reason, I tend to react strongly when a foreign leader disrespects the United States, and its President. I didn’t like it when Hugo Chavez of Venezuela insulted President Bush; I don’t like listening to Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan lecture the U.S. on its sins, and I’m not happy when certain Pakistani leaders gin-up righteous indignation about American behavior when it was their country that served as a refuge for the greatest mass murderer in American history.
And so I was similarly taken aback when I read a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both House of Congress.”
So Netanyahu “expects” to hear this from the President of the United States? And if President Obama doesn’t walk back the speech, what will Netanyahu do? Will he cut off Israeli military aid to the U.S.? Will he cease to fight for the U.S. in the United Nations, and in the many international forums that treat Israel as a pariah?
I don’t like this word, “expect.” Even if there weren’t an imbalance between these two countries — Israel depends on the U.S. for its survival, while America, I imagine, would continue to exist even if Israel ceased to exist — I would find myself feeling resentful about the way Netanyahu speaks about our President. Netanyahu had an alternative, of course: He could have said, as he got on the plane to Washington, where today — awkward! — he will be meeting with President Obama: “The President today delivered a very fine speech. His condemnation of Hamas and Iran, his question about whether the Palestinians actually seek peace; his strong language against Syria; his recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; his re-assertion of the unshakeable bond between our two nations — all of this and more brought joy to my heart. There are a couple of points in the speech, having to do with borders and refugees, that I would like to clarify with the President when I see him, and I’m looking forward to a constructive dialogue on these few issues.”
Of course, he didn’t say this. Instead he threw something of a hissy fit.
Read the whole thing.
I think the right’s reaction to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East officially went off the rails this morning when a prominent right-wing blogger blasted Jeffrey Goldberg as a “far-left Israel hater.”
The Atlantic’s Goldberg is certainly capable of defending himself against such nonsense, but I’d note for context that he’s politically conservative, Jewish, and staunchly pro-Israel.
But Goldberg has drawn the ire of some on the far-right for responding to the president’s remarks with thoughtful and sensible pieces, noting among other things the reference to 1967 borders is neither new nor radical; media coverage has been misleading; and Republican reactions have been overheated for no reason.
It’s worth noting Netanyahu made the above statement to Obama in front of the cameras after they had already met in private for over an hour and a half.
It appears President Obama’s decision to call for Israel to pull back to 1967 border lines was his thin-skinned response to the fact Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak to a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, May 24. Obama wanted to pre-empt Netanyahu’s speech, and not allow him to take the initiative by proposing any kind of proposal to move peace forward in the Middle East. When Netanyahu got wind of what Obama was about to do yesterday, he reportedly had a “furious phone call” with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – but to no avail. Obama went right ahead and called for the 1967 border lines…What a way to run American Foreign Policy. With Obama, it’s all about the big “I.” His ego means everything.
Obama, as he had in his speech the day before, said the Palestinians have “very difficult questions to answer about the agreement between Fatah and Hamas.” Saying Hamas as it presents itself “is not a partner for a … peace process,” the president said Palestinians “will have to explain” how they expect to proceed with peace talks even as they plan to share governing with a group that officially rejects Israel’s right to exist.
Netanyahu was more categorical still, saying Israel would never sit down with any Palestinian government that includes the extremist Islamists. “Israel cannot negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas,” he said, before concluding that the organization ruling the Gaza Strip is “the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda.”
Both Obama and Netanyahu will address the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference in Washington Sunday. Netanyahu then speaks Tuesday to a joint session of Congress.
Despite the hearty handshakes and public rift-repairing, the two leaders nevertheless demonstrated differing perceptions of the tumult in the Middle East. While Obama preferred to refer to a time of “opportunity,” Netanyahu said he would not permit a “time of extraordinary instability in the Middle East” to “jeopardize Israel’s survival.”
On the other end of the spectrum from AIPAC, other groups calling themselves both “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” – like the J Street organization – are promoting the idea that the real “existential threat” to Israel’s survival is resistance like Netanyahu’s to moving forward on a two-state solution.
The next few days are likely to demonstrate to Netanyahu whether either of these two visions resonates today in America.
—The New York Times’ The Lede provides context — including the fact that Netanyahu was prepared before he got there to deliver the lecture:
On Friday morning, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that is Mr. Netanyahu “is prepared for a confrontation with President Obama,” because, in the words of one of Mr. Netanyahu’s aides, “Obama apparently does not understand the reality in the Mideast.”
An unnamed Israeli official on board the plane taking Mr. Netanyahu to Washington echoed that phrase, telling Reuters that Mr. Obama’s speech suggested that “Washington does not understand the reality,” of “what we face.”
A member of Mr. Netanyahu’s delegation to Washington went further, telling Attila Somfalvi, a correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth: “The truth must be told and the prime minster only speaks the truth. Peace cannot be based on delusions. Such a peace would crash into the cliffs of Mideast reality.”
Mr. Somfalvi also reported: “The prime minster had spoken with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a few hours prior to the president’s speech, expressing his rage over Obama’s intent to support a peace accord based on the 1967 borders.”
As The Lede explained on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu has for decades resisted American pressure to start negotiations based on Israel’s frontiers in 1967. In 1992, as an aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Mr. Netanyahu said that an Israeli state without the territory it seized in 1967 would be in such peril that it would have, “the borders of Auschwitz.”
I have the sneaking suspicious that these two men are “none too fond” of one another. President Obama looks mighty uncomfortable here. I don’t know if it’s what Netanyahu is saying or what he’s afraid he might say next.
Maybe it’s just that Netanyahu is right about Obama’s demand for concessions by Israel as he seems unwilling to demand anything concrete from the Palestinians.
As we have frequently observed, President Obama doesn’t know much about history. Netanyahu seizes the opportunity to do a little homeschooling.
“We don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Netanyahu said to the president. “Because, Mr. President, history will not give the Jewish people another chance.” I’m quite sure that Obama couldn’t care less, but Netanyahu figures the American people respectfully beg to differ.
Normally these Oval Office grip-and-grins begin with a few minutes of blah-blah from the president about America’s enduring bond with the other leader’s country, followed by a minute or so from that leader about the “productive discussion” they just had, and that’s it. Not this time: Netanyahu takes off here for a good seven minutes, parts of which are so cutting — the conclusion about history not giving the Jewish people another chance is simply devastating — that it’s hard to believe it was extemporaneous. In fact, by the end he’s facing Obama and addressing him personally, just to add to the theater. Bibi knew this would be his golden opportunity to pay Obama back for yesterday’s speech, and darned if he didn’t seize it. It’s riveting. O was probably completely blindsided by it too, but no doubt realized quickly that this little history lesson would soon go viral in the media and online. Hopefully no meaningful agreements were reached earlier in their private meeting, because if they were, you can forget about ‘em now.
I suppose it’s not surprising, but I’m struck by just how delighted right-wingers are these days when the president of the United States is insulted and embarrassed by a foreign leader. A few years go, wasn’t it treasonous to root for the president to fail, especially on foreign policy, and to have schadenfreude when another foreign leader rebuffed him?
…Obviously, of course, they don’t consider Obama the president of the real America, and, in fact, they probably think of Netanyahu as a more patriotic American. Truthfully, if he could enter the GOP primaries, he’d have a serious chance at winning.
Netanyahu flatly and resolutely told Obama “no” to the 1967 lines. Netanyahu looked tense and firm, blood-shot eyes showed clear fatigue and concern. It’s no wonder.
Absolutely historical. I have never seen the leader of a foreign nation, and ally, say “no” to a United States president like this in such a manner. I wonder if it has ever taken place? Can you think of anything that points to how out of league Obama is?
What Netanyahu said is exactly what he should have said and what I would expect our president to say to the leader of another nation; given we were being pushed into a precarious position, against our interests and safety…
Which is exactly what Obama is doing to Israel.
—The Jersusalem Post’s Herb Keinon says this is not a matter of personalities:
This isn’t a personal crisis, it is not the result of a ”bad connection” or “bad blood” between the leaders. Rather, it is reflective of significantly different way of viewing reality. Even were Obama and Netanyahu to get along as swimmingly as Prince William and Kate Middleton, wide chasms in how each views their country’s interests and what is and is not possible would still separate the two. Obama essentially believes in the land for peace formula, and that what it will take to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict is a painful ceding of Israeli land. Netanyahu, on the other hand, believes, based on past experience, that this will not do the trick nor ensure Israel’s security — so forget about it.
Moreover, there is also a significant rift regarding timing.
“For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet,” Obama said during his speech Thursday evening. “The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.”
“I disagree,” Obama said. “At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.”
The person he is disagreeing with is Netanyahu, because Netanyahu believes that with everything else happening in the Arab world, and Israel really not knowing what will happen to any of its regional partners — Egypt, Jordan and the PA with the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation — this is not the time to delve forward and take huge risks. Rather, he believes this is the time to step back and let the dust settle before taking daring next moves. And that, indeed, is a fundamentally different way of viewing the current regional reality.
The differences are real and genuine. Neither Obama, facing re-election next year and a divided Congress, nor Netanyahu — with Opposition leader Tzipi Livni blaming him for poisoning Israeli-US ties — need this squabble right now. It doesn’t help Obama with his Jewish constituency, and being cast as the US-Israel relationship-wrecker is not exactly the ticket Netanyahu wants to ride on in his next elections.
There was absolutely nothing about President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech to get excited about (and even less in his statement following Friday’s meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu). The president did not even attempt to set out an action plan; he offered broad principles, ones that have been offered before by five previous presidents.
He delivered the speech in an effort to get the jump on Netanyahu who is in town to address Congress and AIPAC. Bibi’s goal is to mobilize his followers against any U.S. efforts to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Netanyahu, who grew up in the United States, is a de facto Republican and, as in 1998 when President Clinton was in office, he wants to strengthen the GOP vis a vis the Democrats.
Delivering the speech was probably a mistake. But Obama felt that he had to deliver it — to preempt Netanyahu’s war-mongering with some good pro-Israel boilerplate and to neutralize some of the opposition to U.S. policies toward Israel that is weakening our standing with the evolving Arab democracies.
For obvious national security reasons, the United States cannot afford to have a new generation of Arab democrats in nations as significant as Egypt hating us because they view America as being in Israel’s pocket. A strong rhetorical endorsement of peace would both help neutralize Netanyahu’s demagoguery and defuse opposition to both America and Israel in the Muslim world. Meanwhile, it would please Netanyahu’s followers.
Israel Today reports that a former top official in the U.S. intelligence community, speaking on condition of anonymity, is convinced “that the Obama administration is about to break America’s long ties of friendship with Israel, and maybe even take steps toward the dissolution of the Jewish State.”
The administration is preparing to “provide more support to Arab countries [with] financial and military aid, undercutting Israel’s defense efforts all while pushing Israel to succumb to the pressure of unreasonable demands designed to end with their political annihilation as a nation,” the source remarked; Obama’s effort is likely to be subtle, and implemented over several years.
This is nothing less than an abomination. In Israel we have just one reliable ally in one of the world’s most explosive areas, and America can ill afford do allow its chief executive to treat the Jewish state shoddily.
It has also been reported that Israeli officials have lately noted what they called “a marked increase in the pressure from Washington to more rapidly acquiesce to Arab land-for-peace demands.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have said that Washington is none too pleased with Netanyahu’s refusal to commit to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian Arab state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Netanyahu’s conditions for Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state warn that should the reconciliation accord between Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian parties, lead to Hamas becoming part of a Palestinian government, no peace will be negotiated.
“A government, half of whose members declare daily their intention to destroy the State of Israel is not a partner for peace,” he told the opening session of Parliament.
Past administrations, dating back to the Truman administration, have stood firmly behind the state of Israel, guaranteeing its security. That must continue to be U.S. policy.
During his visit to the U.S. this week, Netanyahu must be reassured that this policy remains in force under Barak Obama, and the president should treat him with respect and honor. He deserves nothing less.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.