By Jonathan Tobin
President Obama may have thought he was being very clever ambushing Prime Minister Netanyahu with scathing comments about Israeli policies that would be published just before he arrived in the United States for a meeting at the White House and to speak at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
By slamming Netanyahu’s policies as the primary, if not the sole obstacle to peace in the Middle East, in the now infamous interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the president put the Israeli on the defensive and undermined his attempts to rally support for his positions with both AIPAC members and Congress. That should also have made it more difficult for Netanyahu to resist American pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to help the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry succeed. But the president’s move had to leave those who have actually been following the talks with the Palestinians scratching their heads.
Kerry’s current objective is to get both parties to agree to a framework for continued talks. As has been widely reported, Netanyahu has already signaled his consent to the framework even though he and his Cabinet have grave misgivings about where the talks may eventually lead. By contrast, the Palestinians have repeatedly and publicly rejected the framework. The Palestinians have angrily rejected the framework’s requirement that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which is to say they agree to end the conflict rather than merely pause it. They also reject the West Bank security guarantees included in the framework even though it also contains their basic demands about a Palestinian state whose borders will be based on the 1967 borders while leaving open the possibility of territorial swaps. In other words, the Israelis have already given Kerry what he wanted while the Palestinians have done the opposite. Yet Obama still treats Israel as the truant and lauds Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a trustworthy warrior for peace even though his government is a font of incitement for hatred against Jews and Israelis and he has repeatedly rejected every previous offer of statehood because he and his people remain unable or unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
By speaking in this manner about Israel, Obama has pleased the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s Jewish critics and Israel-bashers everywhere. But it will also do something else that perhaps the president never intended. He has killed any chance that Kerry’s peace talks could possibly succeed.
By abusing Netanyahu even though he knows the Israelis have agreed to the peace framework, Obama vented his spleen at what is obviously his least favorite foreign leader. But rather than cheering his scolding of Netanyahu those who claim to be “pro-peace and pro-Israel” ought to be gravely concerned.
Unfortunately, the audience for the Goldberg interview was wider than the membership of AIPAC or the Israeli Cabinet. The Palestinians were also listening and what they heard will constitute a far greater impediment to peace than settlements or the Israeli prime minister.
By speaking in this manner at this particular time, the president made it clear that his administration doesn’t care what the Israelis or the Palestinians actually do in the talks. He will take sides against Netanyahu and for Abbas no matter what the Israelis say or how the Palestinians continue to obstruct the process. It tells the Palestinians they need not fear American pressure either at this stage of the talks or if they ever get close to final status discussions.
That’s a catastrophe for the peace processers because they know that the real pressure for peace on Netanyahu doesn’t come from the White House. It stems from the desire of his people for an end to the conflict. Should there ever be a credible peace offer from the Palestinians that pledges them to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and respects Israeli security and sovereignty, Netanyahu knows that no government could turn it down.
But in contrast to the Israelis, there is no Palestinian peace camp or faction within either Abbas’ Fatah or his Hamas rivals that will push for peace even if it doesn’t grant their maximal demands. The only possible source of pressure on Abbas to do make peace must come from the U.S., Europe and the Arab States. But if President Obama is not willing to hold Abbas accountable for his behavior, then no one will. In the absence of an American determination to hold Abbas’ feet to the fire in spite of the enormous Palestinian constituency that will always oppose even the most generous Israeli offer, the already slim prospects for peace are altogether extinguished.
By attacking Netanyahu and lauding Abbas, the president has accomplished something that no Israeli right-winger could possibly accomplish: kill the peace process. Without American insisting that Abbas change his ways, there is no possible way for him to withstand the far greater pressure he gets from the descendants of the 1948 refugees – who still dream of flooding Israel and turning it into another Arab state – or his Islamist rivals.
Though the president warned Netanyahu that he wouldn’t be able to protect Israel if peace talks falter, his interview with Goldberg guaranteed that this is exactly what will happen. From here on in, everything else he says about the topic is moot.