In Washington, a Clash of the Agendas

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 13, 2009, issue of May 22, 2009.
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What a story! It can’t be called a “Clash of the Titans,” since Bibi Netanyahu is hardly of titanic dimension and of Barack Obama it is far too soon to know. Call it, then, a clash of agendas. When these two meet in Washington, they will bring with them different hopes, different perspectives and very different intentions.

Netanyahu’s preference is to keep all the talk centered on the Iran problem — specifically, on the need to be very clear that harsh sanctions are in the immediate offing if Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran falls through — as Bibi expects it will. But quite remarkably, and in direct contravention of the hopes of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, there is at the moment no fixed timetable for the new American diplomatic effort nor adequate congressional will to pass sanctions legislation until diplomacy has been given a full test.

Obama will not avoid conversation on Iran, but his intention is to change the subject, to talk in detail about the issue that most aggravates Netanyahu — the quick resumption of a serious peace process aimed at achieving a two-state solution.

It was, we’re told, Henry Kissinger who coined the phrase “constructive ambiguity,” meant to describe differences best swept under the rug for the time being, until their current urgency receded, or a new solution emerged, or other developments enabled their direct confrontation and resolution. (U.N. Resolution 242, the resolution adopted after the Six Day War, demanding Israel’s withdrawal “from territories occupied” during the war, is an example of such ambiguity. Did it mean from some territories or from all territories?)

Given Netanyahu’s distaste for a two-state solution, the prime minister may think his insistence on a long-term project to build a Palestinian infrastructure capable of peace is another instance of constructive ambiguity. But Obama and his people will surely see this as something quite different, as an example of what might well be called “destructive ambiguity.”

Why destructive? Let us count the ways:

Because unless there is a definite promise that at the end of the day (and a short day at that) there will be an independent Palestinian state that is territorially viable, the Palestinians are in no mood to stay bent to those they see as colonial masters.

Because no one in Washington takes seriously Israeli promises to halt settlement construction, to ease travel restrictions within the West Bank, to halt development in Jerusalem that will swallow the Palestinian presence there. (No one takes such promises seriously because Israel has long since compiled a dismal record of promises denied, promises broken, promises ignored. Written commitments and oral agreements alike have been regarded as bearable annoyances, not as binding undertakings.)

Because Washington is convinced that a successful coalition of nations opposed to Iranian nuclear capability can succeed only if and when the relevant Arab states see progress on the Israel/Palestine issue.

Because the harsh truth of the matter is that just as much of informed Israeli opinion deeply believes that at this time the Palestinians are simply not ready to be a serious partner for peace, so, too, does parallel Arab opinion think Israel is no more ready to be a serious partner — what with Netanyahu, who voted against Oslo and who chokes on the concept of a two-state solution, at the helm, and with Avigdor Lieberman, for whom “Jewish” and “democratic” are unrelated concepts, as foreign minister.

Nor, in Washington’s view, is the political past necessarily the political prologue. The Obama-Netanyahu meetings will take place in the waning shadows of the annual AIPAC Washington conference, a ritual event where half or more of all members of Congress attend and hear their names read out from the dais, where some 6,000 delegates from around the country assemble and share the cheap thrill of being pandered to.

This year’s Panderer of the Year Award goes, hands down, to Rep. Eric Cantor, who could not restrain himself in describing Israel’s vulnerability — or our own: “Israel’s security is synonymous with our own. The people who point guns at her with murder in their eyes will next turn on us. Her enemies are our enemies, and polite silence amounts to complicity in our own demise.”

Or: “When Hamas is welcomed, even celebrated in world capitals, and we avert our eyes and do not cry out, it may be too late. When the international community demands that Israel make even further compromises than the painful ones already giving for nothing in return, while at the same time — while at the same time lavishing affection on those who support terrorists, and we do not cry out, it may be too late.”

And: “Mr. Ahmadinejad dreams of finishing Hitler’s work, and killing all the world’s Jews. Each day that passes brings him closer to possession of a nuclear bomb, the ultimate weapon. When we dally and fret and wring our hands, but fail to do anything that will really stop him, how late are we then?” And why not take this tired track when it is Israel’s prime minister himself who has insisted that this is, again, 1938 and that Ahmadinejad is, again, Hitler?

It is hard to discern congressional sentiment on these matters. In the past, when American administrations have thought to lean on Israel, AIPAC and its allies have mobilized Congress to intercede, to inhibit American pressure. This time around, with a new president still in the first days of his tenure and with fragments of evidence surfacing that some stalwart defenders of Israel in Congress have grown impatient with Israeli excuses and subterfuges, the tedious and largely fruitless rituals of times past may finally be modified, if not entirely abandoned.

At stake in all this: The fading prospect of a two-state solution, the only solution that can preserve Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

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