So which is it: "cannot be expected" to negotiate, or "failure to try is not an option"? Which is it: Bold new move by the truth-to-your-face president, or stating the obvious, nothing-original-to-suggest president?
Obama surprised Netanyahu, deliberately confused him—and Netanyahu didn't disappoint in being, well, confused. And, unfortunately, also somewhat hysterical. "While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these lines are indefensible," the prime minister told the president, ignoring the fact that Obama had never suggested a return to 1967 lines. Instead of playing down the president's message, instead of trying to minimize the damage, the Israeli prime minister made things worse by attributing to Obama positions he hadn't yet taken (possibly believing that with this president it is only a matter of time before he does); and by annoying the president further with a finger-pointing lecture on the White House lawn; and by making demands that can only force Obama into reminding the visitor which of them is the more important leader of the more powerful nation. ("Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004," the prime minister's office tweeted.)
But the truth is, most of the blame for this unnecessary battle lies with President Obama. No doubt annoyed by Netanyahu's decision to solicit an invitation to speak before Congress, no doubt highly suspicious of Netanyahu's true intentions, no doubt frustrated with his failure to achieve any success in the peace process—the president chose the worst possible moment for this fight. With an unstable Middle East, in which the ruler with whom one negotiates today might not be there tomorrow; with Palestinian leadership unwilling to heed American advice; with Israeli leadership still burned by previous battles with Obama—the president hadn't really offered any plausible explanation for the questions of why now, why the surprise, why the haste, why the new language?
Obama seems not to have learned from previous mistakes in handling the delicate peace process. Two years ago, he made settlement freeze the buzz word of the day; he got what he wanted for a while, but ultimately achieved nothing. "The Obama administration's decision to end its insistence on a settlement freeze put an end to months of grueling diplomacy which led the administration to conclude a focus on the settlements was distracting the parties from dealing with the core issues of the conflict," news organizations reported.
If the events of recent days prove anything, it's that Obama still has a gift for unconstructive distraction. Settlement freeze—out; 1967—in. Once again, Israelis are worried about whether the president is a true friend of Israel, as he claims to be; once again Palestinians have unrealistic expectations that can't be met by the United States; once again there is a basis for talks—direct or indirect—that can't be met; once again a president is being cheered by European allies who are always so ready to see the Israeli prime minister pushed around. If we do not have peace, if we do not have a path leading to peace, at least we have something to talk about, courtesy of a distracter in chief.