When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of Congress May 24, his first audience was the assembly of federal lawmakers and other government dignitaries seated before him. His second audience was President Obama, who was off hobnobbing with the Queen of England, but who only days earlier had set out his vision for achieving a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And his third audience was the American Jewish community.
Judging from the extraordinarily warm welcome he received in the Capitol building — by our count, there were 30 standing ovations, including the applause that greeted his entrance and the conclusion of his speech — Netanyahu easily won over the Congress with his passionate defense of Israel as America’s most trusted ally in the convulsive Middle East.
But whether the prime minister’s spirited defense of the status quo and his reluctance to offer a way back to the negotiating table will be received well by the White House is an open question. And that puts American Jews in a difficult and uncomfortable situation.
No one wants to choose between the President and the Prime Minister, between America’s interest and Israel’s. No matter who is in the White House, no matter who is in charge of the government in Jerusalem, Jews here like to see consensus, a smooth connection, the enunciation not just of shared values, but a shared approach to geopolitical challenges.
In the two years since Netanyahu cobbled together a right-wing coalition in Israel, and came up against an American president scrambling to improve his nation’s image in the Muslim world, that smooth connection has been awfully bumpy at times. The impasse is only growing.
It need not be this way. Obama’s May 19 speech outlining his administration’s response to the so-called Arab Spring contained a ringing defense of Israel’s continued security and a stinging rebuke to Hamas. Obama plainly defended Israel’s right to exist and its place in the community of nations, pledging to resist attempts to delegitimize the homeland of the Jews. And he promised to work against a unilateral declaration of statehood that Palestinian leaders threaten to put before the United Nations in September.
But the president also stated out loud what every president over the last two decades and many Israeli officials have acknowledged: The borders of Israel before the 1967 war, before the 43-year occupation, are the starting point for negotiations with Palestinians. The starting point, not the conclusion, as Obama also called for “land swaps” that, again, have long been an accepted mechanism for dividing the contested land. And he unequivocally stated that maintaining the status quo was not a wise option in a region that has been shaken to its core by revolutionary stirrings for democracy.
Netanyahu must have known that the stern conditions for peace talks that he enunciated before Congress were framed in such a way to leave little diplomatic space for the Palestinians. His narrative placed all the blame on them for the current impasse. He pledged that Jerusalem will remain entirely under Israeli sovereignty. He flat-out denied that Palestinians have any claim on the land that is now Israel. He vowed to keep a military presence along the Jordan River. And while he promised he’d make “far reaching compromises” in the interests of peace, it’s unclear what that could mean when so much is off the table.
And so for those American Jews who were hoping that this string of public pronouncements would lead to a breakthrough, Netanyahu’s defiant stance puts us in a heart-wrenching conundrum. We can choose to support his view of the world, in which an aggrieved Israel bears no responsibility for the occupation and for the impasse in negotiations — and many American Jews will. They will side with him and the Republicans in Congress who offered him this unusual platform without, of course, any reciprocal chance to hear another point of view.
Most American Jews do not share that position. Most don’t want further procrastination, but an end to the conflict, which has stained Israel’s moral standing in the way that occupation and continued violence inevitably do. Most of us dread what will happen in September, if the U.N. vote is successful and Israel becomes even more isolated and demonized.
We think this way in part because we don’t live in Israel’s neighborhood, or face its existential challenges so close to home. Netanyahu skillfully spoke in that fatalistic language, a not-so-subtle reminder to lawmakers — and, not incidentally, American Jews — that the president and his party are distant from and don’t fully appreciate real threats and sworn enemies.
But here’s what Obama does embody in his insistence on a peace process: The quintessential idealism and optimism that undergirds the American personality, the “yes we can” feeling that is right now at odds with Israeli fatalism, along with a pragmatic approach to foreign policy that sees a much larger picture than Netanyahu does. Distance in this sense makes a difference. The wider lens allows Americans to say: Time is against the survival of a state that is both Jewish and democratic. Demographics will overwhelm that ideal in the long term. The populist movements for democracy and self-governance spreading through the Middle East may overwhelm it more quickly.
We want the Palestinian leadership to take bold steps to recognize a new reality and the need for compromise. Why shouldn’t we expect the same of Israeli leadership?
Most of us hoped that Netanyahu would have given a courageous, creative speech to move the process forward, safeguarding Israel’s security as he must, but also recognizing the cogent, entirely reasonable requests from the President of the United States.
You are making us choose, Mr. Prime Minister. Please don’t.