Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington DC was a tour de force, a virtuoso performance on several stages that demonstrated leadership and communication skills of the highest caliber. A leader evaluates, decides, guides, inspires and persuades; in each sphere, the PM excelled in DC. I attended the AIPAC Convention and listened to his rousing address that touched all the right notes, in a hall in which the electricity and excitement was palpable. Poor Obama.
Netanyahu first appropriately put the President in his place while in his place – the Oval Office itself. There have been such dress downs in the past, although none televised and none as dramatic. In a few moments, Netanyahu squashed Obama’s dream of presiding over another signing ceremony about a new spate of withdrawals from the land of Israel. Obama’s protestations about the misconceptions that attended his State Department address were hollow and unconvincing, as his inability to speak coherently without a teleprompter is increasingly maddening. The contrast in the demeanor and poise of the two leaders was stark, and Netanyahu’s open rejection of the Obama initiative was as necessary and welcome as it was dangerous; clearly, the PM is banking on a one-term presidency. He need not expect another warm invitation to the White House anytime soon.
In his addresses, to AIPAC and Congress, Netanyahu made clear that Israel has red lines that it will not cross: the 1967 borders are not the starting point of negotiations (as Obama nefariously insisted, while deviating from the policies of his predecessors and denying that he was) nor would they be the outcome of negotiations; Jerusalem is not for sale, division or sharing; Israel will maintain its right of self-defense, and looks to the American people and Congress for support and understanding, if not the Executive Branch. Above all, he reiterated that Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, given to us by the G-d of the Bible. We returned to that land after 19 centuries of exile in an astounding fulfillment of the Biblical vision. He touched all the right notes. Now, if only he sticks to them.
The enthusiastic response – I sat through it awestruck – was at times boisterous, and bi-partisan. Republicans (Boehner and Cantor) and Democrats (Reid) subtly and not-so-subtly let it be known their public disagreement with Obama’s approach and policies. It was an unprecedented smack down of a President – by his own party and by the opposition – just days after a new foreign policy initiative. Many speakers unabashedly proclaimed that support for Israel is a bi-partisan effort, and the fact that 2/3 of the Congress joined 10,000 Jews at the AIPAC Conference banquet was telling, and no doubt intimidating.
For sure, Netanyahu is helped by his command of unaccented, idiomatically-correct English, which makes him seem almost American to an American audience. His familiarity with American culture and history – and his embrace of American exceptionalism – is both a pleasant reminder and a challenge to an America that has a president who abjures such jingoism. He succeeded in completely turning the tables on the Arab enemy, speaking of the concessions that Israel has made and will make in the future for a true peace, but only for a true peace. He even offered more territorial retreats for a real peace, a peace that includes a de-militarized Palestinian state that accepts a Jewish state of Israel. He seemed so magnanimous that some on the right in Israel were critical that he went too far, even as some on the left lamented the death of the “peace process.” So how can both be true, and how can we trust Netanyahu, who failed in his first term as prime minister and was routed from office ?
I don’t know if he can be trusted, but I do sense that he is playing a high-stakes game of poker. He can afford to speak incessantly of “painful concessions” because he knows he has no interlocutor on the other side. Thus, Netanyahu is wise to eschew another interim agreement that involves the same Arab promises in exchange for the surrender of more land, and insist on a final status agreement or nothing. Why ? Because he knows that the Arabs will never agree to his terms, all of which sound (and are) reasonable – no more violence, no “right” of return of Arab refugees to Israel, no militarized state of “Palestine,” and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Any one of those sticks in the craw of any Arab politician; the likelihood of the Arabs embracing all of them is nil as it would require – in the words of a Foreign Ministry official I met with in Israel last week – the “negation of Islam.” What a brilliant gambit, putting the ball in their court. Israel’s new “concessions” are literally on the table; let the Arabs come forward now with some of their own. Don’t hold your breath.
While the purist in me disavows any dilution – even verbal, even insincere – of the rights of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, the analyst recognizes the ploy for what it is: a gamble that has Israel playing a strong hand that, if maneuvered well, will leave the Arabs on the defensive. If Netanyahu has concluded – in his heart – that “peace” is impossible for the foreseeable future, then he can say what he wishes without any real consequences.
Two pitfalls remain. True, the enemy might say “yes,” but that is so unlikely as to not even enter the analytical equation. More probably, the Arabs will play their traditional card – unrestrained terror and violence against innocent civilians – in the hopes of regaining the strategic upper hand. That will unleash enormous pressure – both domestic and foreign – on Netanyahu to “do something,” show some “good will” in order to quell the violence. That would enable the Arabs to capitalize on these new “concessions” – a retreat from areas beyond the settlement blocs – while maintaining their rejectionist stance. All this can be deterred and pre-empted if the violence is suppressed immediately with a strong, forceful and merciless hand. Will Netanyahu be able to do that – and will Israeli society remain supportive of him ? That is an open question. In his previous incarnation as PM, he consistently caved in the face of pressure, and the leftist Israeli media will be relentless in their depictions of impending doom and gloom. They can – and should – be ignored, like Tom Friedman. If Netanyahu cannot resist the pressure, then these “rhetorical” concessions will come back to haunt him and all of Israel.
Netanyahu has cleverly changed his style of governance from his first term, when he made himself too accessible to the media and tried to do all his explaining by himself. He thus opened himself to unremitting attacks and potshots from the media that undermined his rule and created the impression of weakness (which he also fostered through poor policy choices). He has learned. He rarely speaks publicly – but when he does, as he did in Washington this past week, the effect is dramatic and the political results extraordinary. If he has internalized the sad reality that the “peace process” is and always was a sham, that his tactics are ingenious and the way he has taken the PR war to the enemy masterful.
Contrast the image of a strong Israeli leader with a bumbling American president, whose foreign policy initiative was stillborn, who disrespected the Queen of England by mangling his toast (doesn’t he have a Chief of Protocol, or did he just ignore him?) and then dated the guestbook at Buckingham Palace with the year 2008 (Obama must still be in campaign mode), and we might have witnessed a historic week that strengthened the Israeli Prime Minister’s standing and weakened that of the American President as he begins his re-election campaign.