Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, having refused to accept the policy victories offered in President Obama's speech last Thursday and declining the opportunity to form a solid bond with President Obama, has now picked a useless, counterproductive fight with the president.
President Obama's speech—billed as a "big" speech—was in fact rather vaporous as it pertained to the Arab uprisings. It did not explain what next steps were to be taken in Libya, Syria, or even Egypt, beyond some minimal financial support for Cairo. It surely did not create a policy architecture that explains the varying responses we have shown to the different revolutions in the region.
That said, the speech at least put the United States on the side of the longer arc of history, on the side of those standing for freedom and liberty, and in opposition to the tyrannies of the past. The conversation after the speech should have focused on the American desire to move against the Arab autocracies, whose funding of Islamic fundamentalism has been the bane of both the United States and Israel.
And from the perspective of Israel, the takeaway from the speech, as it pertained to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, could have been seen as favorable for two critical reasons. First, the president made it clear that the U.S. continues to abhor Hamas, despite its partnership with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. The United States would not expect Israel to negotiate with an entity pledged to Israel's destruction. Second, the president made it clear that, in the absence of a true peace deal, the United States would vote against and object strenuously to any effort at the United Nations this September to legitimize a Palestinian state.
Each of these is a reasonably new policy of great import to Israel. And had Netanyahu chosen to focus on them, the speech would have seemed like a major success for the Israeli side, and would have shown once again that the United States and Israel were on the same page in current international affairs.
In particular, the proposed U.S. rejection of what has become a major Arab initiative of the past months —the effort to get recognition for a Palestinian state at the U.N. this September—is hugely important. The Arab effort once again to isolate Israel at the United Nations is the first significant diplomatic effort to channel the anger of the Arab Spring toward Israel. Most of the nations of the world—like lemmings—are willing to play along. Having the United States stand as a bulwark, as it always has, will stop the forward march of the Arab effort to once again encircle Israel. The president's speech said not only that such a U.N. misadventure would not create a real state but also that distractions of this sort would not substitute for genuine reform within the Arab world.
But this didn't interest Netanyahu. Nor did Bibi revel in the president's clear articulation that as long as Hamas does not repudiate its avowed intent to destroy Israel, there can be no meaningful negotiations with its leadership. The burden is now squarely back on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to change their worldview before anyone can demand that Israel resume negotiations. That is a fine gift for Netanyahu from the president.
A bit of appreciation for both positions would have gone a long way to easing relations between the U.S. and Israel.
Instead, Netanyahu decided to pick a fight over a meaningless and indeed standard articulation of where the future borders of a Palestinian state would be drawn. By saying that "the 1967 borders with agreed upon swaps" would be the basis of negotiation, President Obama merely reiterated what anybody who has any sense of the negotiations over the past decade knows to be the actual basis for all recent negotiations. It was nothing new. To have deviated from it would have been new.
Indeed, in a speech to AIPAC on Sunday, the president reiterated this exact formulation—making clear it was not new. "There was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous administrations. … It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation."
Think about this from the perspective of the White House. The effort to refocus attention on the difficult dynamics of the Arab Spring, which is quickly becoming an Arab long hot summer, and may well become an Arab winter, has now been waylaid by another dispute with an Israeli prime minister whose repeated and often petty acts have caused the president needless angst.
Netanyahu could have, and should have, positioned himself as a staunch ally, thankful to the United States for continued support, appreciative of the difficult decisions the United States has often made. He could have focused on the fact that at this time of tumult in the region, Israel is, has been, and will continue to be the sole, true democratic state in the region. Hence the cultural and value-based alliance that supersedes all others. As we watch the Arab nations slowly—and uncertainly—evolve toward our common values, Netanyahu should have said, Israel and the United States can enjoy the fact that they already have a relationship based on the deepest of emotional and political connections.
Netanyahu's focus could have also been on the uncertainties of any alliance with the Arab states, the deep cultural divisions between the U.S. and the Arab nations, the possibility—which nobody desires—that even Egypt might end up as an Islamic fundamentalist state. And in that context, Netanyahu could have said, isn't having an ally like Israel even more important?
But he rejected that path, and we are now watching an unnecessary and bitter dispute between the White House and Israel, as the Arab states get a pass.