President Obama’s friendly outreach to PM Netanyahu strikes me as primarily an appeal to a domestic Jewish audience – whose liberal component is deeply troubled by Obama’s tone and substance toward Israel – rather than a genuine attempt to mend fences with Israel and conduct himself as one would expect from a friend and ally. With Obama’s poll numbers declining, he needed to shore up his Democratic Jewish support that had bottomed after he was misled into believing that the leftist Jews with whom he surrounds himself are representative of the Jewish – even liberal Jewish – community. They are not, despite their protestations.
The attempted “charm offensive” began several weeks ago. It included reaching out to US Rabbis for private meetings and the exchange of clichés and platitudes, meetings that – unlike President Bush’s outreach – did not actually include a meeting with the president himself, and now has culminated in what is being billed as a “friendly” meeting (as if that is something unusual), that will even include the presence of a photographer, perhaps a flashy smile, and, if Netanyahu plays his cards right, an entrance through the front door of the White House in daylight instead of the standard (for Israel’s prime minister) rear door entry in the dark of night.
Yet, even this invitation was muffed by the White House. Note the contrast in the invitations of Netanyahu and PA ex-president Abbas (who still functions as ra’is despite the fact that his term lapsed more than a year ago, but who’s counting anyway ?). Netanyahu was “invited” in a throwaway line by Rahm Emanuel who was visiting Israel: “Since you’ll be in Canada next week, stop in…” or something to that effect. The Abbas visit, in two weeks, was announced in a formal statement issued from the White House, with pomp and solemnity. There was no such formal White House statement for Netanyahu.
The Prime Minister should have said “no, thank you… not this time, perhaps in a few months.” He should have deflected this invitation by saying: “Mr. President, your invitations are always welcome and our friendship is strong, sincere and true. But it is not right for me to impose myself on you for a third visit, while you – a world traveler, including across most of the Arab world – have yet to visit me in my humble and holy land. So let us plan a date for your visit, and we shall talk then…” He should not come because the Obama administration is locked into a mindset that is detrimental Israel’s survival: “peace” is on the horizon and it will only be won through Israeli concessions. However that sentiment is couched and colored (the Arabs will renounce terror, incitement, or the wearing of white robes), the bottom line is all tangible concessions must come from Israel. And every new concession is just the prelude to the next round of concessions.
Israel could benefit from some benign neglect, at least until the harmful dynamic is halted or reversed. An interesting commentator wrote (http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=176586) that Netanyahu’s primary goal today should be domestic stability (especially including that of his government) and that Israel would do well to avoid any diplomatic initiatives for the foreseeable future. Every Israeli diplomatic initiative in the last thirty years has left Israel in an impaired strategic posture at its conclusion, as if often winds up negotiating with itself and against itself. Passivity has its place, and even words matter.
Be careful what you say. Surrender begins insidiously, with words that Israel interprets as innocuous even as the enemy and its acolytes invest them with great significance. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102a) states that “brit keruta lasfatayim” – there is a covenant made with the lips. Whatever people say will be fulfilled in some form, and not always as they intended. In 1978, Menachem Begin agonized over accepting one phrase in the Camp David Accords, acknowledging the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.” He didn’t believe they had any rights to the land of Israel, much less legitimate ones. He was convinced to sign (foolishly), likely by advisor Aharon Barak, who later became the irksome President of Israel’s High Court of Justice, who told him that the phrase “legitimate rights,” absent any real definition, meant nothing, and were just empty words.
Not quite. The phrase was almost universally perceived to reflect the “national” rights of an Arab people to the land of Israel, and the rest is inglorious history. Within twenty years, the idea of a Palestinian state went from being anathema to the civilized world and synonymous with a wish for Israel’s destruction to Israel’s being anathematized by the civilized world (and the uncivilized) for its failure to create a Palestinian state, even though it is still synonymous with a wish for Israel’s demise.
Therein rests the danger as well in Netanyahu’s embrace of a conditional Palestinian state last June. Not many remember or care what his conditions were; all people consider is that there few credible leaders in Israel now – right or left – who oppose a Palestinian state. The natural question then becomes: why is Israel obstructing the creation of a Palestinian state that they themselves have endorsed ? That question is difficult to answer convincingly to a world that has tired of Israel’s security laments, and that question – sure to be raised by Obama to Netanyahu next week – weighs like an albatross around Israel’s neck. So why go to a White House altogether ? To coordinate a joint attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities ? That’ll be the day.
Words matter. Words create psychological realities that are often then translated into physical realities. Sure, Netanyahu relieved US and some domestic pressure by this concession, but at what cost? When words are used as concessions, to thwart the relentless pressure coming from our enemies and their supporters, the consequences are profound. The only answer is not to become tired, not to become so fatigued that surrender seems like the only reasonable option. In this, the Talmud guides us as well (ibid 104b): “kal hamaitzik l’Yisrael eino ayaif,” whoever oppresses Israel does not become weary. The enemy is inexorable, and is emboldened when he sees that Jews are tired (as Ehud Olmert infamously said five years ago). But knowing that their relentlessness is a given – and that our passion must exceed theirs – means that we must be vigilant in giving no quarter practically or even verbally. “No” (or “no, thank you”) is also an answer.
So, you are always welcome here, Mr. Netanyahu, but you need not jump just because Obama tells you to jump. He is busy anyway cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that his daughter Malia has been hectoring him about (shades of Amy Carter’s youthful obsession with “nucular proliferation” that bedeviled her father). Let Obama clean up the mess in the Gulf, and when those waters are again pristine, he can try to clean up the mess in the Middle East. Otherwise, there are hazardous and choppy waters ahead for Israel.