Barack and Bibi: An Optimistic Reading
According to a very reliable source, Abraham Foxman got an e-mail the other day, lamenting the fact that Hitler didn’t get him, apparently because of the Anti-Defamation League’s statement praising President Obama’s Middle East speech. I didn’t call for confirmation because I didn’t want Abe to ask me not to publish, and I regard my sourcing as pretty close to impeccable.
The Internet has been exploding lately with e-mail slime about Obama and the so-called “Auschwitz borders,” which Abba Eban often said was the one moment in his life that he regretted more than any other. There’s an ugly mood in the land that ill serves us. This is not something orchestrated out of Jerusalem; it’s an expression of a psychological debility, some sort of post-Holocaust stress syndrome: Eban once said, “We are a wounded people.”
Nonetheless, Bibi could make things better if he moderated his own speech. He’s taken up a position that he knows is untenable, partly for domestic political reasons, playing to his right flank, and partly as a tactical feint to improve his eventual, inevitable bargaining position. Israel has run out of time for stalling; Bibi’s too smart not to know this, and besides, he’s hearing it from his security and intelligence people. He’s saying stuff that simply inflames the right and makes things uglier.
Now, assuming he’s saying the stuff he’s saying for tactical reasons, that’s not the end of the world. Politicians can’t always be telling the truth — they have to tell people what they want to hear in order to gain the running room to do what needs to be done.
The fact is, though, that his reaction to Obama’s speech is one giant whopper. Three giant whoppers, in fact. Call it the Three Whoppers of Blair House, in honor of the famous Three No’s of Khartoum.
Whopper No. 1: It’s unrealistic to demand that Israel go back to the 1967 borders, because they’re indefensible. Negotiations can’t be conducted on that basis. First of all, nobody asked Israel to go back to those lines. The demand is that those lines be the basis for the talks. And they have been the basis for nearly every round of Israeli-Palestinian talks up to now. That’s why we keep on hearing about 92%, 98%, etc. 92% of what? The territories as they were before 1967.
Whopper No. 2: The 1967 border isn’t a peace border, it’s a war border. Israel was subjected to constant war before it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. No — actually Israel had very little war on its borders before 1967, and lots and lots of wars on its borders and inside its “borders” since 1967.
Whopper No. 3: Israel can’t talk to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, because Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. By that logic, the Palestinians can’t talk to an Israeli government that includes Yisrael Beiteinu, which openly rejects peace, and HaBayit HaYehudi-The Jewish Home, which claims that the West Bank is part of Israel.
Some more details about these three Whoppers, plus a theory that Obama is endorsing the 1967 borders because he can’t get Bibi to do so openly and it’s the only way to get the Palestinians back to the table, after the jump:
Whopper No. 1: It’s unrealistic to demand that Israel go back to the 1967 borders, because they’re indefensible. Negotiations can’t be conducted on that basis. First of all, nobody is asking Israel to go back to the 1967 borders. The demand is that the talks be “based on” the 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps. Those swaps would include both accommodation of the larger Israeli settlement “blocs” and adjustments for Israel’s security. And how do we know that? Because Israel has been engaged in negotiations based on the 1967 borders at least since 2000, and arguably since the semi-official Beilin-Abu Mazen talks of 1995. The talks have yielded useful concessions on the Palestinian side. And as I’ve written many times, Israel’s security professionals believe those borders are defensible. The claim that they’re indefensible is based on ideology, not military analysis.
Whopper No. 2: The 1967 border isn’t a peace border, it’s a war border. Israel was subjected to constant war before it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. That’s ridiculous. Between the signing of the 1949 armistice, ratifying the so-called 1967 border, and the end of the 1967 war, which erased that border, Israel was involved in exactly one war, the 1956 Sinai Campaign, which had nothing to do with the armistice lines—it was a grab by England and France with Israel hitch-hiking to teach the new Egyptian regime a lesson. Since 1967 Israel has been involved in at least five wars — the War of Attrition, the 1978 Lebanon campaign, the 1982 Lebanon War (both were against the PLO), the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-09 Gaza incursion — and two intifadas. If anything, the post-1967 lines are the invitation to constant war, not the pre-1967 lines.
Whopper No. 3: Israel can’t talk to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, because Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. The funny thing is, Israel and the United States expect the Palestinians to talk to a Netanyahu government that includes Yisrael Beiteinu, which openly declares that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is impossible, and the Bayit Yehudi-Jewish Home party, which believes that the entire land of Israel belongs to the Jewish state (the mirror image of the Hamas position). When Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu shoots off his mouth and says that the Palestinians are incapable of peace or that he wants to transfer Israeli Arab towns out of Israeli sovereignty, the prime minister’s office issues a laconic demurral that Lieberman doesn’t represent Israeli policy (after all, he’s only the foreign minister). I would think that Mahmoud Abbas should be entitled to make the same statements. He’s got a better reason than Bibi for including rejectionists in his cabinet: If he doesn’t, he has no way of speaking for Gaza, and if he doesn’t speak for Gaza, Israel says there’s no point in negotiating. So which is it?
Having said all that, it’s just possible that Bibi is blowing smoke and he knows it. Whatever went on in their 110-minute meeting on Friday, spokesmen on both sides are saying the disagreements aren’t as far apart as you think. Here’s one possibility: Obama needs to give the Palestinians something to come back to the negotiating table. They have refused to sit with Bibi, remember, because of his demand for talks “without preconditions,” by which he means only one thing, which is that he wants to junk all the progress that was made in previous rounds of talks and start again from zero. Obama tried to get them back to the table with a settlement freeze. That didn’t work, because they didn’t consider it a real freeze (it didn’t include Jerusalem), and now he can’t even get the partial freeze they finally agreed to. So maybe his new gambit is an American commitment to the 1967 borders plus-minus. He can’t get Israel to agree to those lines under current circumstances, but maybe he told Bibi on Friday to cool it a little—blow off some steam if you have to in order to impress your right flank, but not so much that you scare the Palestinians into thinking you mean it. And then maybe we can get down to talks based on what the Americans and Palestinians call the 1967 borders and Israel calls “we’re keeping the major settlement blocs,” as Bibi put it in his Knesset speech, which can come to the same thing. Maybe.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).