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Obama vs. Netanyahu: What does it mean?

On 18 May 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to to publicly encourage a Palestinian/Israeli accord based on the 1967 borders. Not only that, but he did so in the context of a speech about freedom and self-determination throughout the Middle East before a largely unsympathetic audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the notoriously hawkish pro-Israel lobbying organization in the United States. His words were measured, even conservative, but it is worth revisiting them here:

…a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

It was a surprising speech, one that Obama may never have given if not for the death of Osama bin Laden and the resulting uptick in his approval ratings. Perhaps he learned in the first two years that political capital is a terrible thing to waste. Whatever the reason for his time, this was a speech with great symbolic import. A U.S. president mired in racialized conspiracy theories about his own origins and his own beliefs at home is not the most likely candidate to offer criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And he’s certainly not likely to do it before an audience at AIPAC, through a televised address. The speech means something, and it’s important to consider both what it does and does not do.

The scope of the speech is limited. It heralds no transformation in Middle East policy for the United States, which has ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. Military aid to Israel is not likely to stall, or even decrease, any time soon. Its symbolic significance is precisely that: symbolic, meaning that it does not change things in any real way for Palestinians, or for other people in the Middle East and Maghreb, at least not right away. But I do believe that rhetoric is important, and I suspect that this particular speech is more significant here in the U.S. than elsewhere.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response has been so vitriolic, I think, because Netanyahu knows that a better-educated U.S. public will not, in the long run, support exorbitant U.S. military assistance for an Israel with no accountability to the world community. And it is precisely the U.S. public’s generalized ignorance about world affairs that has kept Likud and AIPAC happy with U.S. policy for so long. Obama’s speech is a symbolically important speech, and Obama needed for the American people to hear it as such, without being swept up in the conspiracy theories of the day, at a time when he enjoys relatively high public approval.

Not only that, but it suggests that, despite the administration’s continuation of the Bush wars, this may be a President who is independent-minded enough to make useful international policy, in ways that contemporary U.S. presidents are not lately accustomed. As Akiva Eldar of Haaretz points out, Obama “did not try to make nice. After long deliberations, the die was cast at the White House. Plans would no longer be tailor-made for the government of hour in Israel.” And Nisreen El-Shamayleh of Al Jazeera notes that:

He supported the Palestinians’ idea of territorial contingency…He also talked about settlement construction, [saying it] had to stop. That is obviously another thing the Palestinians would like to hear from Obama. [He] more importantly talked about the status quo and how it was unsustainable. That is bad news for Netanyahu.

It’s important to remember that we started at approximately zero here: Not one U.S. president since George H.W. Bush has dared even criticize ongoing settlement expansion. A unilaterally condemned practice throughout the rest of the world, by lay people and human rights organizations alike, and not one U.S. president until Obama. It doesn’t mean everything, but it means something; it means enough to make Netanyahu nervous, and that in itself is significant.

Indeed, you’d think the U.S. had moved to rescind all military aid pending negotiations with Hamas, given the tenor of Netanyahu’s response. He called Obama’s ideas “indefensible” in a televised meeting with the President on Friday. In response to the recommendations, he stated that “a peace based on illusions will crash eventually against the rocks of Middle Eastern reality” and unequivocally added that Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines.” He demanded “a significant military presence along the Jordan” and rather disingenuously called Hamas “the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda,” given that Obama never encouraged negotiation with Hamas. Finally, Netanyahu suggested that absorption of Palestinian refugees would “wipe out Israel’s future as a Jewish state.”

Could Netanyahu have possibly hand-crafted better sound bytes for Fox News Channel? Here he is, standing up to the Great Big Bad President of the United States. He knows that this is a matter of an under-educated U.S. public, and his words are perfectly suited to the paranoid ranting of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, not to mention, yes, AIPAC. He insinuates that, overnight, the U.S. has become a supporter of Hamas, promoting policies sure to “destroy” Israel. Is it much more of a stretch to suggest that Obama is a “secret Muslim fascist” who was educated in a “radical madrassa” in Indonesia? The rhetoric suits U.S. discourse perfectly, and as we have done before, we will descend into mind-numbing conspiracy theories.

All I know is that, if U.S. citizens want to improve our standing in world opinion, we really have to become educated enough to shoot down this kind of ridiculous, heavy-handed rhetoric, whether it’s coming from Beck or Hannity or Netanyahu. Discussions with moderate Palestinians and a return to the 1967 borders with are by no means radical sanctions sure to destroy Israel. All this, just for agreeing with the rest of the world that a two-state solution is needed. You can bet that the U.S. will never criticize Israel’s standing as the sole nuclear power in the region, yet we are to believe that measured compromises and an end to settlements suggests we’d like to “throw the Jews into the sea”?

No. It doesn’t. And we don’t. To suggest otherwise for the benefit of the cameras, to contribute to the dysfunctional political theater of the United States when you are its guest, invited by the President: It’s histrionic. It’s uncalled for. Because the President calls for a more public commitment to the rights and self-determination of all people? A somewhat less hypocritical approach to these ideals when it comes to the Middle East and Maghreb? These things can only be good moves on the part of the United States. I don’t expect transformation overnight, but Obama’s recent statements give me a measure of hope. And as in any public debate, we ought to be engaging as adults, with the facts: Israel is no more likely to fall into the sea than we in the United States are to be overtaken by Shariah law. It’s time our policy and our rhetoric grew the hell up. And I really believe that, for everything it fails to do, Obama’s speech was a step in the right direction.