The past week was consumed by diplomatic turbulence boiling out of Israel. With a stagnant peace process, President Obama issued his long awaited formula for peace between the Arabs and Israelis at the close of his major address on the Arab Spring.
There was very little new in Obama’s statement on Arab-Israeli peace. But, there was one sentence that would be blown out of all proportion and lead to a major public concession from Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Washington.
In his Remarks on the Middle East and Northern Africa, Obama stated: “We believe 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.”
While this passage went without notice in foreign policy circles since the negotiable border issue had been agreed by a long string of presidents including George W. Bush, it seemed to take the Israelis by surprise.
Upon hearing Obama’s statement, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shrieked like a harpooned rhinoceros. Igniting a crisis driven by fears of Muslim hoards at the doorsteps of Tel Aviv, Netanyahu shouted at the top of his lungs, “The 1967 borders of Israel are indefensible.” Then, Netanyahu flew in his jet plane to Washington for a tense meeting at the White House with Obama that stretched out to ninety minutes – perhaps, the longest meeting ever held with a foreign head of state during this administration.
Following their taut meeting, there was a press conference in the Oval Office. Obama led off with seven minutes of calm simply and clearly reiterating the US position. Then Netanyahu, visibly shaken and sweating profusely, strained to explain why Israel could never return to the 1967 borders – even though Obama had never proposed any such thing.
The next act in the drama came on Sunday, when Obama was scheduled to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Before the President spoke, that long-serving supporter of Israel, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, delivered what some in Washington consider to be “an implicit challenge” to the President. Known for being a wimpish sock-puppet for corporate America, Hoyer sometimes just puts his signature on forms sent to his office from AIPAC and then sends them over to the White House with the AIPAC branding still on them. From the podium, Hoyer was his usual sycophantic self, eager to please his financial backers by reiterating his commitment to peace negotiations without pre-conditions – a slap at Obama’s insistence on settling the border dispute as a matter of priority. Hoyer’s obsequiousness produced the desired effect of a standing ovation, and well it should – mimicking Cassius to the best of his severely limited ability, Hoyer had just placed the first dagger into Obama’s chest.
Obama followed Hoyer, and he did not back down one iota from the position he laid out three days earlier – extracting Hoyer’s miniscule dagger in the process. In fact, Obama parsed his text for his frightened and suspicious audience. Reminding them that border negotiations have been at the root of all previous peace negotiations and that his phrase, “mutually agreed swaps,” meant just that, Obama laid down the law of land for peace. After a lengthy litany of his pro-Israeli policies, Obama asserted, “The status quo is unsustainable.”
Going further, Obama informed AIPAC that he had advised Netanyahu, “The current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination.” Obama observed that the steady growth of the Palestinian population west of the Jordan River made it difficult to maintain the dual character of Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state. Reflecting on the negative impact of swiftly evolving weapons technology and the rapid political evolution of the region triggered by the Arab Spring, Obama informed AIPAC that any sustainable peace agreement would have to be supported by a majority of Arab citizens rather than by the decree of one or two autocratic dictators. Reflecting on the realities of the global movement to delegitimize Israel that extends beyond the Middle East and includes major players in Latin America, Asia and Europe, Obama defined the fierce urgency of now for AIPAC.
Warning that the tempo of the momentum to isolate Israel has shifted significantly, and the trend is now running against Israel in the absence of a viable peace process, Obama reminded AIPAC that he was about to embark on a five day diplomatic mission to Europe where the Middle East and Arab-Israeli peace are major concerns. In fact, Europe has long lost her patience with the Israelis, and the EU has been putting a lot of pressure on the Netanyahu government to stop procrastinating and start negotiating before another war surges in upon the tiny nation that would impact on the world economy. Obama closed his talk reiterating that the world is moving too fast to ignore the momentum that threatens the peace and security of the region and the planet. Using stark terms, Obama stated:
We can't afford to wait another decade or another two decades or another three decades to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast. The extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow. Delay will undermine Israel's security, and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.
Obama made his position perfectly clear -- that unless Israel moves toward peace with alacrity, war that could alter the diplomatic reality for Israel will soon follow.
John Boehner and Eric Cantor addressed AIPAC, but their remarks were boilerplate talking points that were so predictable they did not add any suspense to the political and diplomatic drama that was rapidly unfurling. The suspenseful role was left for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
In this play, Harry Reid assumed the role of Brutus to Hoyer’s Cassius. In an uncharacteristically emphatic and hectoring delivery, Reid harshly and implicitly scolded Obama from the AIPAC podium. Fawning over AIPAC at every opportunity, Reid zeroed in on Obama’s prescription for peace via border negotiations with the telling phrase: “Israel cannot be asked to agree to confines that would compromise its own security.” Reid went further, promising to halt all aid to the Palestinians in the wake of the unification agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Lacking any of the context of Obama’s statement, Reid recited talking points prepared for him by the AIPAC staff – even crediting a bandage invented in Israel with saving Gabby Giffords’ life.
With Obama now taking tea with the Queen of England, Netanyahu was left to address AIPAC and Congress. The dramatic turn of the screw took place in Netanyahu’s appearance before both houses of Congress on Tuesday.
With the stage set for his appearance and his congressional audience attentive, Netanyahu delivered a shocking revelation that has set off another firestorm in Israel -- for during his highly anticipated speech the Prime Minister publicly confirmed his support for Obama’s prescription for the peace process. Here is Netanyahu’s groveling acquiescence to Obama’s decree for border negotiations:
I’m saying today something that should be said publicly by all those who are serious about peace: In any real peace agreement, in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.
The triggering phrase is this one: “some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.” Back in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and most of all in the Hebrew settlements far beyond the 1967 borders, the veil was rent; the clothes were torn, and the wailing surged upward into the heavens. The Prime Minister of Israel had flown to Washington to tell the President of the United States that the borders of Israel must extend to the River Jordan, and now he had received a standing ovation from Congress because he publicly agreed to abandon Hebrew settlements to the Palestinians in his quest for peace and an end to the forty-four years of military occupation, terror, wars and the emergence of momentum in the now accelerating process of delegitimization.
While Obama was feted royally at Buckingham Palace, Netanyahu is now embroiled in heated discussions with members of his own party and his fragile coalition.
The Vice-Premier of Netanyahu's government, Silvan Shalom accused the Prime Minister of violating the policies of the Likud Party. Vice-Premier Shalom is the first member of Netanyahu's cabinet to break with him over his concession to Obama on some settlements being left outside the eventual borders of Israel. Two Likud Members of the Knesset, Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Dannon, brusquely criticized Netanyahu for the concessions he made in his speech to Congress.
Upon his return to Israel, Netanyahu was greeted by a group of young supporters of Likud who protested his concessions to Obama.
That was the week that was.