The Speech

There have been and will be a lot of pixels spilled over Obama’s Middle East Address yesterday at the State Department.  Still, in all the discussion of whether or not the speech marked a change in US policy towards Israel (it did), I think it amounts to Obama going in and kicking over a sand castle because it’s not perfect yet, and because it was largely built by someone he doesn’t particularly like – Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yossi Klein Halevi – a lefty, but a pragmatic one – wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal about Netanyahu’s achievement in consolidating a political consensus in Israel on how to deal with the Palestinians:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a remarkable speech to the Knesset on Monday outlining future Israeli concessions to a Palestinian state. In doing so, he essentially ended the ideological debate within mainstream Israeli politics over the so-called two-state solution.

Mr. Netanyahu’s historic achievement has been to position his Likud Party within the centrist majority that seeks to end the occupation of the Palestinians but is wary of the security consequences. There is no longer any major Israeli party that rejects a West Bank withdrawal on ideological grounds. Instead, the debate is now focused where most Israelis want it to be: on how to ensure that a Palestinian state won’t pose an existential threat to their country.

In Mr. Netanyahu’s latest speech, the implicit was no less important than the explicit. Israel, he said, would insist on retaining the large settlement blocs near the 1967 border—and not, therefore, the smaller, isolated settlements outside the blocs. Israel, he added, would also insist on a military presence in the Jordan Valley—and not, therefore, on retaining settlements there.

Israelis are willing to take risks for peace when they feel safe and accepted… The situation today is exactly the opposite.

The ability to achieve a credible agreement with the Palestinians depends on Israel asserting—and only then reluctantly ceding—its historic claim to the whole land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. That’s because even moderate Palestinians insist on their historic claim to the whole land of Palestine, including what is today the state of Israel. The moral logic of partition depends on each side sacrificing a precious part of its patrimony. That logic works only if Hebron and Jericho belong to the Jews—just as Palestinians say that Haifa and Jaffa belong to them.

That last part is important, because while Netanyahu makes long-term concessions, they are concessions, not the starting point for new negotiations.  To drive this home, on Friday, the Israeli government approved 1550 new housing units in Jerusalem, leading Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to scream bloody murder.  Jerusalem’s sovereignty is not negotiable.

Obama’s speech, in effect, ignores the Israeli political consensus just as it’s set in place.  In Obama’s view, Israel doesn’t get to decide to leave portions of the West Bank, it has to argue to stay in any portion of it at all.  It expresses exasperation with negotiations that go on and on and don’t produce anything, and then leaves the two most critical issues for later.  The Israeli consensus understands that trying to implement anything right now would be madness.  Obama, in his own word, “disagrees.”

The manner in which this was done – according to Ha’aretz, the US didn’t tell Israel about the contents of the speech – is in keeping with the pettiness of the President when it comes to people who challenge him.  Naturally, the Israeli left hasn’t jumped on Netanyahu for supposedly poisoning the relationship with the US, but such people can’t be helped.  According to Halevi’s view, Kadima has been effectively sidelined, and Obama’s speech was a lifeline to them.  There was enough wriggle-room in Obama’s words – there always is – that, as John Podhoretz predicted yesterday, Livni can try to spin it as a pro-Israel speech.

But what kind of a pro-Israel speech is it when you tell your closest ally that its negotiating position on existential issues are not to be a result of its own political process?

So instead of a long-term vision that Israelis can agree on and work towards, something that can last year, decades if need be, something like the American foreign policy consensus that obtained during the first 30 years of the Cold War, Obama attempts to guarantee a continued interal Israeli struggle, which weakens that country and emboldens her enemies.


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