Was Netanyahu wrong to lecture Obama?
According to numerous press reports, the Palestinians have refused any meaningful concessions in the John Kerry-led peace talks. No compromise on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, on refugees, on borders, on security arrangements, on anything meaningful. Instead, they are planning a diplomatic intifada to try to isolate Israel when the talks break down.
But, the Palestinians are happy to pocket the dozens of convicted killers released as part of the inducement to get them the negotiating table. More important, they make their uncompromising positions as the baseline for future negotiations.
This tactic of pocketing concessions while conceding nothing has a recent history.
In May 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Barack Obama a now famous talking-to in front of the cameras about the Middle East and the peace process:
Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg would describe the incident like this:
It was an extraordinary scene: President Barack Obama, sitting impassively in the Oval Office in May as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lectured him, at considerable length and at times condescendingly, on Jewish history, Arab perfidy and the existential challenges facing his country.
What was extraordinary wasn’t the message — it was not an untypical Netanyahu sermon. What was notable was that Netanyahu was lecturing the president live on television, during a photo opportunity staged so that the two leaders could issue platitudes about the enduring bonds between their nations.
That display of impudence left the president and his team feeling unusually angry. Shortly afterward, Obama’s chief of staff, William Daley, called the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, to communicate the displeasure of the White House in a reportedly heated way. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who watched her husband battle Netanyahu in the late 1990s, also expressed anger and frustration about the prime minister within the administration.
Context is everything and the context of the meeting was the frustration with the Palestinian negotiating tactics from the year before.
The previous year, Netanyahu, responding to pressure from the administration, implemented a moratorium on building in areas captured by Israel in 1967 to coax Abbas to negotiate. Instead, Abbas ran out the clock refusing to negotiate until the last few weeks of the moratorium and then breaking off talks when the it ended. The administration didn’t criticize Abbas for failing to take advantage of an opportunity to negotiate, and instead tried to get Israel to extend the moratorium.
Earlier in the month Abbas had concluded a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Despite this blatant disregard of the peace process – Abbas claimed that he couldn’t make a deal with Israel, but he could make a deal, even if didn’t hold up, with those devoted to Israel’s destruction – Abbas pleaded that the PA not be penalized for the deal.
Earlier in the week, Mahmoud Abbas had written an op-ed, the Long Overdue Palestinian State in which he laid out his plan for getting a state.
Negotiations remain our first option, but due to their failure we are now compelled to turn to the international community to assist us in preserving the opportunity for a peaceful and just end to the conflict. Palestinian national unity is a key step in this regard. Contrary to what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel asserts, and can be expected to repeat this week during his visit to Washington, the choice is not between Palestinian unity or peace with Israel; it is between a two-state solution or settlement-colonies.
Despite Israel’s attempt to deny us our long-awaited membership in the community of nations, we have met all prerequisites to statehood listed in the Montevideo Convention, the 1933 treaty that sets out the rights and duties of states. The permanent population of our land is the Palestinian people, whose right to self-determination has been repeatedly recognized by the United Nations, and by the International Court of Justice in 2004. Our territory is recognized as the lands framed by the 1967 border, though it is occupied by Israel.
We have the capacity to enter into relations with other states and have embassies and missions in more than 100 countries. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have indicated that our institutions are developed to the level where we are now prepared for statehood. Only the occupation of our land hinders us from reaching our full national potential; it does not impede United Nations recognition.
His reference to negotiations was lip service. What he laid out here was his intent to pursue statehood unilaterally in violation of the premises of the peace process.
Obama gave a speech prior to the meeting in which he called for Israel’s pre-1967 to be the starting point for negotiations. In the speech he addressed the Fatah-Hamas agreement:
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist. …
Now, let me say this: Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.
There’s no strong rebuke for Abbas. There was no outrage at the alliance between the purportedly moderate Fatah and Hamas. There’s just an acknowledgement that the alliance would raise “concerns” in Israel, not that no sentient being would be willing to negotiate his own destruction.
Leading up to Netanyahu’s “lecture” there were repeated instances of the Obama administration adopting the Palestinian narrative and turning a blind eye to blatant Palestinian rebuffs to the peace process. And there was the speech itself. According to reports at the time, Netanyahu objected in advance to the mention of the 1967 borders in advance. (The New York Times described his objection as “angry.”) The contents of the speech gave a free pass to Abbas and snubbed a request by Netanyahu.
Apparently, this was the final straw for Netanyahu. True the difference between declaring “1967 borders” as a basis for negotiations and the eventual shape of a Palestinian state may be minor. But the position of the American government in 1967 was that Israel’s 1949 armistice lines was likely to lead to “renewed hostilities.” Similarly, resolution 242, on which all peace processing had been based called on to withdraw “from territories,” not “all territories” captured in 1967 and a need for “secure and recognized boundaries.” By prioritizing the pre-1967 borders, Obama put Israel’s need for “secure and recognized boundaries” secondary.
Additionally, Barry Rubin pointed to this line in the speech:
Look at this remarkable sentence:
“Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks.”
I believe this is the first time he’s ever acknowledged that the Palestinians refused to talk, though this has been obvious for two years. But by not mentioning that at his request Israel made an unprecedented freeze and then at his demand added Jerusalem to that freeze, Obama shows that he will not appreciate or reward Israeli concessions.
So while trying to be even-handed he’s signaling to Israel that it will gain nothing by doing what he asks.
Professor Rubin rightly calls this attitude “patronizing.”
It’s easier to blame Netanyahu than Abbas because the former, because the leader of a democracy is subject to internal and external political pressures.
If, on the other hand, the main stumbling block to peace are unchanging and deeply held beliefs of the Palestinians, there’s little hope for progress. Blaming Netanyahu – for his extremism, arrogance or ingratitude – is the easier course than believing that one’s assumptions are wrong.DONATE
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