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Hussein Ibish

What was Netanyahu so enraged about?

President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech last Thursday did not break any particularly new ground on Israeli-Palestinian peace or Washington’s basic positions on negotiations. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of his supporters reacted furiously. Why? The reasons are deeply illuminating.
 
There were three elements to Obama’s speech that the Israelis did not like. First, Obama reiterated the well-established idea that negotiations will be based on the 1967 borders with mutually-agreed land-swaps. Even though this has been essentially understood since UN Security Council Resolution 242 and has been clear-cut United States policy since at least 2005, Obama stated the principle more clearly than usual. The Israelis regard this, essentially, as a concession to the Palestinians for which they will no longer be able to extract anything in return.
 
Second, Obama explicitly outlined what has been implicit US policy for most of his administration: That the parties should work on reaching understandings on borders and security first, and base progress on other permanent-status issues on those agreements.
 
Neither side seems particularly comfortable with this formula, which might defuse the settlement issue but also make reciprocal compromises on deeper, more existential problems like Jerusalem and refugees more complicated. To work, it will also mean instituting an informal understanding based on the Clinton parameters limiting Israeli settlement activity in occupied East Jerusalem to Jewish areas, something Netanyahu and his allies deeply oppose.
 
Third, Obama did not rule out dealing with, and possibly even providing aid to, a new Palestinian government arising from the Hamas-Fatah agreement. He said the agreement raised “profound and legitimate questions” for which the Palestinians would have to provide a “credible answer.” However, he didn’t adopt the Israeli line that no dealings with any such unity government would be acceptable.
 
There was a good deal to irk the Palestinians as well, especially Obama’s strong statement against any efforts next September to seek United Nations recognition for a Palestinian state. However, the plainly infuriated response by Netanyahu and his supporters seemed completely disproportionate to the substance of Obama’s remarks.
 
There are two factors informing this strong overreaction. First, and most important, is the Israeli sense that while Israel can deal with the Palestinians from a position of overwhelming strength and effectively impose any reality on them, at the international level the walls on Israel’s maximalist ambitions are closing in.
 
Obama’s speech is best read in contrast to Netanyahu’s speech the previous Monday before the Knesset. The Israeli prime minister ruled out negotiations on Jerusalem, spoke of annexing settlement blocs, and demanded a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. These positions are incompatible with not only international and American expectations about the nature of a two-state solution, but also American national interests and the vision of peace laid out in Obama’s subsequent speeches.

The American foreign policy, intelligence and military establishment has finally concluded that the creation of a Palestinian state and an end to the occupation that began in 1967 is essential for the United States to successfully pursue its other interests in the Arab world and, indeed, other parts of the Islamic world. This rethinking was mainly prompted by the problematic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has only been reinforced by the “Arab Spring.”
 
In this context, Obama warned Israel that “there is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one not just in the Arab world” but “already manifesting itself in capitals around the world.”
 
The Israelis appeared more pleased with Obama’s address to the AIPAC convention this past weekend, in which he highlighted Washington’s support for Israel but also reiterated all his basic positions. However, last week’s events greatly strengthened Israel’s sense of being isolated not only internationally but also from the US with regard to its vision of the future. It might hope to impose unreasonable conditions on Palestinians, but cannot hope to do so on the world, especially on the Americans. This explains the hint of panic in the Israeli reaction to Obama’s unsurprising, reasonable, carefully-crafted remarks.
 
Netanyahu and his allies are fundamentally uncomfortable with Obama and would prefer to see a Republican in the White House after the 2012 US presidential election. The enraged Israeli reaction was an invitation to Republican hopefuls such as Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney to issue strong denunciations of the president’s remarks, which they immediately did. Even after the AIPAC speech, some of Netanyahu’s supporters are continuing to issue dark warnings to Jewish Americans that a second term for Obama would be disastrous for Israel.

So, while there was genuinely visceral anxiety among those like Netanyahu that Obama’s speech reinforced Israel’s international isolation on the future of the occupied territories, there was also a degree of politically-calculated histrionics aimed at helping Republicans in their effort to unseat the president in 2012.
 
What Netanyahu and his supporters are failing to understand, however, is that Obama’s remarks do not reflect his personal predilections. They are based on a strong American consensus regarding US national interests, especially the need for what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the “inevitable” Palestinian state.
 
Members of Congress and Republican candidates are free to say whatever they want, since foreign policy is not their direct responsibility. But whoever ends up in the White House will have to base his or her policies on American interests, not on political calculations. Netanyahu, like any other Israeli leader, will not be able to ignore, flout or oppose these interests in the long run.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • ali daoud

    emile, i wish i could believe your claims, M14 are the corruption itself, what state they want us to live in?! that one we saw yesterday in wzaret al ittisalat?! one ISF forbidding the Minister of Ittisalat from entering into a building related to his Ministry? the ISF chief not respecting neither the will of the Interior Minister, nor the will of the President, nor the will of the telecom Minister?! did they look to you like ISF or like a militia?! I wish all parts of Lebanon are dear to all Lebanese, we saw the ooposite, habibi HA defended Lebanon and sacrificed for Lebanon and got conspiracy and treason inreturn, and believe me, no matter what HA does, no matter how good or clean or human or disciplined or patriotic he is, the other party will never miss a chance to humiliate him, simply because they are not free men, and they will act as free independent men, but i assure you, HA is here to stay and prevail.

    May 27, 2011

  • Moonsear

    Habibi ya majd, Aoun in the past few years has been an excellent EMPLOYEE of the resistance, Patriarch Rahi said it before and Junblat said it today. It is not a secret that before returning from exile he made a deal with the Syria occupation and HA for his return as long as he recanted on all his previous stance which he did. For 15 years the deserter General promised his supporters that he will only deal with the Syrians once they withdraw and return the people they kidnapped and threw in Syrian jails. But he made a deal for cash before they withdraw and forgot all about the prisoners. History had taught us that the deserter General was never one to keep any of his promises. After all his promise to resist till the end turned into a desertion less than 16 hours later. You forget that they accused Aoun of being a Zionist agent when he was calling for the Syrian occupation to stop, Karam shows they were right.

    May 27, 2011

  • ali daoud

    words to live by guys, when you would stop living in the past? who cares what General Aoun said years ago? General Aoun in the past few years was an excellent allly of the resistance, and he is winning, and others are so weak, who cares about all other bs?!!

    May 26, 2011

  • Emile

    @majd/ we are all with long live lebanon and down with israel. how did you conclude sami is an israeli citizen ?. just because he said, resistance is not only with guns, resistance is by having good economy, good education systems, corruption free lebanon, clean and green lebanon, smuggling free lebanon.. lebanon without kids begging in the streets used by thugs, and am sure the government knows who the thugs are and not do anything about it. by having lebanon drug free country. every inch of lebanon is dear to every lebanese, from akkar to maroun el ras. let us stop kid ourselves and brag about strong...lebanon is becoming broken up society. so much rehabilitation has to be done within ourselves, that how to be strong

    May 26, 2011

  • Moonsear

    Ladies and gents let me introduce to you Adonis the official NowLebanon article counter so designated and specially appointed by the official Syrian Arab news agency to keep an eye, take notes and file reports FYEO Syrian Mukhbarat and information ministry about anything not sanctioned by the Syrian information ministry a post he previously held between October 13 1989 and April 26 2005. After April 26 2005 there was a worry that Adonis was going to become unemployed and his family destitute with the Syria army's departure so it was with great relief that we find him still employed in this new bean counting capacity.

    May 25, 2011

  • words to live by

    General Michel Aoun 2002 "The Resistance has prolonged the ‎Occupation" - ... so liberation could have come much earlier .

    May 25, 2011

  • ali daoud

    sami, i bet you are an israeli CITIZEN. TO ALL PROUD LEBANESE HAPPY GREAT LEBANESE LIBERATION DAY VIVE LEBANON, DOWN israel

    May 24, 2011

  • Sami

    Adonis, so many things other than Israel are "enemies". Corruption is an enemy. Ignorance is an enemy. Dictators are enemies. Try to have a balanced view of things. Israel became so powerful by balancing things for its people. By having everyone equal under the law. By giving freedom to its people. By dimocracy. There is no other for us way to get better and defeat Israel without following these same means. We may be winning a battle here and there, but we are always losing the wars.

    May 24, 2011

  • ADONIS

    look...nowlebanon finally made an article about real enemy. wow...just when i was thinking they forgot who is the real enemy. Of course, one would say that ethnic cleansing of palestinians is much more important subject than "let's take assad down - 3 articles per day", but one would be wrong when reading nowlebanon. After all, what is the fate of whole palestinian people that is linked with lebanon by the fact of refugees, compared to takedown of hated assad regime. According to the nowlebanon it's important that assad falls and resistance gives up weapons...and palestinians...well, nowlebanon remembers them from time to time. Like a fairy tale.

    May 24, 2011

  • Sami

    Obama is a pupet for the Israeli lobby and anything he says is coordinated with them. They brought him to power. So it is all a theatrical play on arabs and palastenians. Nothing will happen at the end and Israel will keep expanding in palestinian land. Anything Obama or any other envoy to middle east says should not be even news worthy. Years and years pass and envoys following envoys from washinghton and this is all done to give Israel more room to expand. Arabs are fool to listen to such talks and to meet these envoys.

    May 24, 2011