Last Thursday morning, President Barack Obama was getting ready to lay out his grand strategy for dealing with the Middle East's so-called "Arab spring." Or so we thought. He was going to explain what role America can play in promoting freedom, ending the era of dictatorship, supporting the protesters—while guarding America's interests and keeping an eye on the price and availability of oil.
And he did—sort of. But his message was completely lost, all because of one clause that has very little to do with the Arab spring or with the main body of his timely speech: "based on the 1967 lines with mutual swaps." That was it. Since then, Obama has been busy being puzzled (by the response), being angry (because of "distortions" of his position), having to hear lectures (more on that later), having to restate and explain his position (in yet another speech), bickering (with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), making commitments (he is still a good friend of Israel), and calming nerves (of anxious pro-Israel American Jews). In short, the president has been wasting his precious time and our less precious but still valuable time.
A week ago today, Netanyahu was getting ready for a pleasant visit to the United States. The pressure to offer more compromises to the Palestinians seemed to have subsided, following the surprise announcement of a Palestinian unity government that includes terrorist group Hamas. The stage was set for a triumphalist speech in front of a joint session of Congress in which he was going to present—or so the leaks from his office led us to believe—"new ideas" for the advancement of peace. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency ran a headline that looks almost comical today: "On eve of Netanyahu visit and AIPAC conference, Obama and Bibi appear on same page." Apparently, it was the same page but not the same book. So the last couple of days were all about going back to the habitual ceremony of denying a rift between the countries, back to the days of they "can't stand each other," back to the feelings of "mutual mistrust." For five days now, the prime minister has been busy being puzzled (it was an ambush), being angry (at the president), having to hear lectures (on the importance of advancing peace), having to explain (why the president's position endangers Israel), feeling the need to express expectations (that the president will go back to the Bush language), and calming nerves (so that the battle won't get out of hand). In short, the prime minister has been wasting his precious time and our less precious but still valuable time.
Simply put, the 1967 line is the line that used to be the border between Israel and its neighbors—Jordan, Egypt, and Syria—prior to the, well, 1967 war, the Six-Day War. And now, for the first time, a president is saying that this line would be the starting point for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians when they get to talking about the future border of a future Palestinian state. Is this an important policy shift or just a statement of the obvious? The experts have been debating this question for a few days now, but it seems that even the president himself hasn't made up his mind yet—or is playing a game of plausible deniability.
On Sunday morning, in Obama's speech to the pro-Israel delegates of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (known as AIPAC, or "America's pro-Israel lobby"), the president said: "I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for re-election, is to avoid any controversy. But as I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination." That seems to suggest that the president is ready to break bold new ground to avoid "procrastination." But in this same speech, Obama also said that "there was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties." Here he was trying to convince the crowd that all the brouhaha of recent days was much ado about nothing.
And it was—as the president also seemed to suggest Sunday morning, when he said that "Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist" (namely Hamas, now Fatah's partners in the unity government). Or maybe it wasn't really about nothing: "[N]o matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under the current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option," the president also said.
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.