Coming from a family that saw the creation of a Jewish State in the wake of the Holocaust as redemptive, an official visit by an Israeli Prime Minister was nothing short of thrilling. That such a leader might actually address a joint session of our Congress, which Yitzhak Rabin did in January of 1976, was simply unimaginable. The only analogy that comes close — and equally unimaginable — was that we would have an African American sitting in the White House.
It is in this context that I found the appearance of Bibi Netanyahu lecturing that President in the Oval Office, and seeking to undermine him on Capital Hill so profoundly disheartening. What’s most troubling is that the Prime Minister and many of his supporters in Israel, at AIPAC and in the Halls of Congress don’t seem to understand that Barak Obama, like the tireless Bill Clinton before him, is among Israel’s best and truest friends. It’s precisely the kind of friendship that any of us should want. As Obama defined it at AIPAC real friends talk openly and honestly with one another. A West Bank settler told a reporter that he feels sorry for President Obama, whom he characterized as being out of touch with reality. Perhaps all those who so cheered Netanyahu on Capital Hill (political theater that shouldn’t be considered seriously) agree with that assessment, but I think the man has it exactly backwards. He (and his Prime Minister) might do well to look in the mirror.
The winds of change in Israel’s neighborhood have been making headlines for months. So it really boggles the mind that so many people there (and here) seem oblivious to the implications of what is, even at this early date, a total game changer. The region’s durable fixture Hosni Mubarak who was grooming his son for inevitable succession is out of power and they both have been indicted for murder. Israel is not immune to these seismic changes. Whether they fired the first bullet (they didn’t) or can point to their own dislocations (they can) should be, but probably no longer is, relevant. Netanyahu, with the assurance of an owner may talk about being generous and insist on a military presence on the Jordan, but he may not be in full control of the future. Just ask Obama (or any President) how easy it is to see the best-laid plans go out the window when events take over. In the face of a sea change, none of us, certainly not Israel, can rely on long held assumptions. More important, those who blindly encourage staying the course are endangering Israel’s future not protecting it. I’ve written about the implications of the Arab Spring before (Gandhi rebooted and Moment of Truth), so let me not repeat myself. But do take a look at Tom Friedman’s similar views expressed in his excellent May 24 column, Lessons from Tahrir Sq. Both he and I are American Jews who desperately want Israel to survive.
Bibi Netanyahu is a canny fellow when it comes to American politics, which is not surprising. He spent part of his childhood here and was later educated in American universities. He speaks unaccented English, the kind of foreigner we Americans instinctively like. His politics are aligned with the Republican Party (the Boehner invitation), especially now that it has turned so far to the right. George W. Bush was a soul mate; Barak Obama is not. From the moment he arrived last week, Bibi has done everything possible to undermine our President, most especially playing Congress against him. Of course, that they, including Democrats, followed like blind sheep may speak more to the condition of our own politics than his.
Watching Netanyahu giving his history lesson in the Oval Office and addressing Congress on Tuesday (with the word for word text he might used before the Arab Spring) put the difference between being President and being a legislator in sharp relief. Legislators have the luxury of posturing, which they seem unable to resist. Presidents have the burden of getting things done. Cheering, talking tough and saber-rattling is cheap and easy. Sending young people into battle or negotiating peace is something entirely different. The pundits and the public should keep that in mind when scoring these past days. Netanyahu did great we're told; Obama was rebuked (including by Harry Reid). Maybe so, but I’m with the President here and most especially with his sober straight talk.
American Jews and Israelis would do well to pause for a moment and consider what our President’s told AIPAC attendees on May 22. Because we understand the challenges Israel faces, he said, I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies. It’s why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing [already far larger than to any other country] to record levels.
Everyone who cares about Israel — and we all should — would do well to read the entire text. As to that real friends talking openly and honestly with one another, consider just these listed facts that he suggested we all must confront:
- First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This will make it harder and harder -- without a peace deal -- to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.
- Second, technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace.
- Third, a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.
Netanyahu ignored all three. His focus was the ’67 borders and the width of the Washington Beltway. He catalogued all the things that were wrong with the Palestinians — many of which are true — but absent from his forcefully delivered talk was even a single mention of something Israel might have done wrong. He spoke of that generosity, but shut the door tight on even a discussion of Jerusalem (speak of unrealistic).
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians certainly can’t be blamed for all that’s wrong in the region or for all of the hostility of some Muslims toward the West. We don’t know what will happen the day after a peace agreement is signed. That the absence of an agreement has been used and manipulated by various nations and groups for their own purposes can’t be denied. So, too, does Israel bare a greater burden in the blame game and is it often unfairly portrayed as the sole villain. But at some point all of that ceases to have much meaning. Settling the Israel/Palestine issue, the President has made clear, is in the vital interest of the United States. For valid reasons, exagerated or not, it impacts on world peace. Real friends level with each other. So don’t be fooled by all the cheers that will turn on a dime if the wind blows in another direction. Self-interest, perceived or real, ultimately prevails.
But also don’t lose heart. Menachem Begin, founder of the party that was the seed out of which Bibi’s Likud grew, began his career as a terrorist. As Prime Minister some years later, he signed the treaty with Sadat. He is remembered not for the bombs he detonated in the pre-Israel Palestine but as a peacemaker. Sharon was an often-ruthless warrior and provocateur whose last active days were focused on achieving peace, actually ceding Gaza as a sign of good faith. I fear the current generation, is more interested in claiming their rightness and protecting an untenable status quo than moving forward. Netanyahu’s aggressive foray into Washington didn’t allay that fear, quite the contrary. Hopefully, I'm wrong.