The Corner

Obama vs. Netanyahu, Round Three

Barack Obama gave two major policy speeches about the Middle East in quick succession, on May 19 and May 22; and while he discussed a number of Middle East topics, the Arab–Israeli-conflict portion received the lion’s share of attention. Analysts and politicians who care about the Middle East’s only democratic country (yes, I use that formulation now that Turkey is under AKP control) have excoriated Obama and see Israel in great jeopardy. For example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the speech “a disaster” and said that Obama, in effect, asked Israel “to commit suicide.”

I see things more positively for Israel. My reasoning:

This is Obama’s third gratuitous, unprovoked, and unilateral picking of a fight with Israel. The prior two took place in May 2009 and March 2010: In the one, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared no Israeli building even in eastern Jerusalem; in the other, Vice President Joe Biden got (mock?) outraged when such building did take place.

In all three cases, the fight dwelt on a secondary issue that few had been focused on — Israeli building in the first two cases, and the June 4, 1967 ceasefire lines as the basis for a permanent border agreement in the current one — until Obama turned them into headlines.

Obama’s picking a fight led in all cases to an immediate hardening of positions by both Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis retreated, wounded and disinclined to make concessions, while Palestinians added Obama’s demands, Jerusalem and the 1967 lines, to their prior list of demands of Israel.

When Obama realized his mistake — that Israeli governments make concessions more readily when relations with Washington are strong and Palestinians need to be pressured, not coddled — he crawled back to the Israeli prime minister, making nice as though nothing had happened. This has occurred twice already, in September 2009 and July 2010. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank used choice language to describe the latter episode, describing a “routed and humiliated” Obama in a White House flying “the white flag of surrender.”

I predict that a “routed and humiliated” Obama will regret his ill-chosen fight over the 1967 lines and, if he follows his prior schedule, should be crawling back to the prime minister in about four months’ time, or September 2011.

In conclusion: As someone opposed to Arab-Israeli negotiations while war is underway and to Obama’s presidency, I take solace in his making a hash of diplomacy and politics. This way, Israel is less likely to make more counterproductive “painful concessions” and, with a slew of former Obama supporters abandoning him, Obama has hurt his chances for reelection.

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