Stephen M. Walt

The Obama-Netanyahu “debate”

The contrast between Barack Obama’s Cairo speech and Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last night at Bar Ilan University could hardly have been greater. Obama was eloquent, sophisticated, and obviously looking to find areas of agreement and to reach across chasms of suspicion and misunderstanding. Even if one might quibble with a few particulars, the sincerity of ...

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President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the South Portico following their meetings at the White House Monday, May 18, 2009. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson. President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office Monday, May 18, 2009. Offical White House Photo by Pete Souza. This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

The contrast between Barack Obama’s Cairo speech and Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last night at Bar Ilan University could hardly have been greater. Obama was eloquent, sophisticated, and obviously looking to find areas of agreement and to reach across chasms of suspicion and misunderstanding. Even if one might quibble with a few particulars, the sincerity of his effort at outreach was palpable even to some listeners who would have liked him to go farther.  

By contrast, Netanyahu’s offering last night was self-righteous, defensive, and generally lacking in nuance or empathy. In his portrayal of Middle East history, Israelis are blameless victims and Arabs are nothing but untrustworthy and vengeful adversaries. There was no mention of the Arab League peace initiative and no hint that maybe, just maybe, Israel’s policies of reprisal, targeted assassinations, and territorial expansion after 1967 had also contributed to this tragic conflict. Apart from some boilerplate language about peace and economic development, it was a speech that demanded further concessions from the Palestinians and offered — begrudgingly — only a heavily qualified vision of a “two state” solution.  

According to the transcript provided in Ha’aretz, Netanyahu uttered the phrase “Palestinian state” exactly once in his remarks, preceded by the modifier “demilitarized.” He gave no indication what borders he imagines for this state and did not even say that the West Bank portion should be contiguous, although he made it clear that Jerusalem would “remain the united capital of Israel”). Moreover, his vision of a two-state solution — “each with its flag, anthem and government” — suggests that he thinks the Palestinians will accept some sort of limited self-government arrangement so long as they get to fly their own flag and sing a national song.  

Furthermore, after appealing to the Palestinians to “begin peace negotiations immediately without preconditions,” he proceeded to lay out a set of preconditions that he knew would be unacceptable if not insulting. In addition to the relatively new condition (i.e., something Ben Gurion or Rabin never demanded) that the Palestnians accept not only recognize Israel’s existence (something the PLO already did back in 1988), but also recognize it as “the state of the Jewish people.” Moreover, after saying that neither side should “threaten its neighbor’s security and existence,” he insisted that the Palestinians agree to  permanent state of abject vulnerability. Specifically, once the Palestinians agree to have no army, no control of their air space, and to forever forswear military treaties — then Israel “will agree to a real peace agreement.”

Netanyahu clearly felt he had to make some concession to Obama’s dramatic new initiative, but the response he offered was the barest minimum. That was to be expected, and may not even tell us very much about Bibi’s own beliefs. After all, he is leading a heavily right-wing ruling coalition, most of whose members are even more hardline than he is.  Had he gone any further — or expressed the slightest remorse or regret about some of Israel’s own actions — his own political position would have been jeopardized.

I draw three lessons from the two speeches. First, the episode shows that U.S. pressure can work. Obama hasn’t done anything more than describe the differences between his vision and Netanyahu’s in clear language, and to stick to his position in the face of Israeli objections. Yet even this relatively brief period has forced Netanyahu to take a least one step in the right direction, because he knows that he cannot afford to jeopardize U.S.-Israeli ties and he knows that the Israeli electorate knows that too.  According to a recent survey by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, 42 percent of Israelis oppose settlement expansion, 41 percent support it “but not if it will result in a confrontation with the United States,” and only 17 percent back expansion “irrespective of the American position.”

Second, this incident also shows how far we still have to go, and that Israel will doubtless try to drag things out as long as possible and make Obama pay a political price for every concession. After all, they know he’s facing lots of other problems, and they are probably hoping that he’ll eventually have to turn to other matters. As one unnamed Israeli official said last week, “We are not sure how much staying power they [the US administration] have. Washington is a one-crisis town.” This approach is smart tactics but a foolish strategy, because failure to get a two-state solution is the real threat to Israel and the longer they delay the harder it is going to be.

Third, let’s not forget that as things stand now, the United States is still far from even-handed. We are subsidizing Israel to the tune of $3 billion-plus per year and Obama made it clear in Cairo that the United States is still “unshakeably” committed to its security. And that means the United States is still indirectly supporting the occupation, even if the President and his aides say that they oppose it. If Netanyahu and company remain intransigent, Obama will face the choice I wrote about in Taming American Power:

If Israel remains unwilling to grant the Palestinians a viable state. . .then the United States should end its economic and military support. . . We can hope that it does not come to this, but U.S. leaders should be prepared to pursue the American national interest if it does. In effect, the United States would be giving Israel a choice: it can end its self-defeating occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and remain a cherished U.S. partner, or it can remain an occupying power on its own. In other words, the United States would be treating Israel the same way that it treats any other country. The United States would still support the continued existence of a Jewish state (the same way that we support a Norwegian state, a Thai state, a Polish state, etc.), and it would be prepared to help if Israel’s survival were in jeopardy. But it would no longer treat Israel as though its interests and U.S. interests were identical, or behave as if Israel deserved generous U.S. support no matter what it did.”

And yes, I know that matters are far from ideal on the Palestinian side of the equation, and that a lot of work needs to be done on that front too. But Netanyahu’s speech did nothing to convince Palestinians that Hamas was the real obstacle to peace and statehood, which would be the best — and maybe the only — way to undermine its standing amongst Palestinians. Either Bibi doesn’t get it, or he doesn’t care, or he’s a hostage to his own coalition. Whatever it is, expect more fireworks between Washington and Jerusalem.

Lawrence Jackson/The White House via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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