‘Words matter,” White House secretary Josh Earnest told reporters today, by way of explanation for the Obama administration’s fresh, newly intense scorn for the government of Israel.
So they do — which is why it is so disturbing that the White House is twisting the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ignoring the torrent of hate and hypocrisy that has issued forth from the Palestinian side for years, and now using its own words to drive a real wedge between the United States and Israel. (The president did speak to Netanyahu today but, per the official readout, specifically congratulating the prime minister for winning a plurality of the Knesset probably didn’t help.)
Courting his supporters before the Israeli election this week, the White House says, Netanyahu used “divisive” rhetoric and disavowed the idea of a two-state solution, calling into question a principle that has undergirded Israeli–Palestinian negotiations for more than two decades now.
In return, the White House is threatening to turn a blind eye to Palestinians’ abandonment of a different principle that has undergirded negotiations for more than two decades now. The White House says Obama will “reevaluate” the U.S. position toward Israel at the United Nations, a threat that means, most immediately, the U.S. could drop its opposition to U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. The threat is likely empty, but publicly airing it is an incredibly contemptuous way to treat an ally — let alone one of our closest and most vulnerable ones.
The Palestinian Authority’s attempt to gain state-like recognition at the U.N. (they are currently trying to join the International Criminal Court) is a violation of the spirit of the Oslo accords, which reserves such issues to bilateral negotiations. That was just one reason, alongside the increasing influence of Hamas and other security problems, why Prime Minister Netanyahu said before the election that he would not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on his watch.
Here were his words: “Anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory is just giving territory away to radical Islamic attacks against Israel. That’s the actual reality that has come about in recent years.” So it is, which is why, when Netanyahu was then asked whether he would agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state during his time in office, he said no.
This is an acknowledgment of reality, not reckless rhetoric. At worst, combined with Netanyahu’s (ill-advised) expression of concern about high Arab turnout, it is a shadow of the kind of contempt that Palestinian officials regularly show for Israel. Netanyahu quickly clarified his two-state-solution comment, reemphasizing after the election that he did not believe a Palestinian state feasible with the other side behaving as they are, rather than disapproving of the two-state solution in theory.
President Obama, unhappy with Netanyahu’s attempts to block a deal with Iran and generally uncomfortable with a realistic view of Israel’s enemies, is blowing the controversy vastly out of proportion, just as he did with Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Obama, clearly, finds no joy or satisfaction in defending Israel on the world stage. He may not understand why we do so at all.
But he is not likely to stop doing it entirely, given the strong pro-Israel sentiment in this country. He is seeking a pound of flesh, some admission from Netanyahu that will make it look like he has pushed the two sides of the Arab–Israeli conflict closer together. (It could be, for instance, concessions on settlement construction.)
This episode, though, will do real damage to Israel’s trust in the United States. If President Obama understood what this meant, or cared, he would know that his behavior is not just a betrayal of our ally and our own values — it emboldens our enemies and does nothing to move Israel and the Palestinians toward a secure, lasting solution. And once this crisis passes, there is not much to look forward to: The president will return to occasional diplomatic slights toward Israel, allowing more time for his preferred activity, negotiating giveaways to Iran.