The lowdown on the Middle East—for those able to listen.
On Sunday, even before Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu had arrived in America for his current visit, President Obama was portraying him in an interview to Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg as the obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
At the same time, Obama lavished praised on Netanyahu’s opposite number on the Palestinian side, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, calling him “somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue.” Abbas, in another one of countless such instances, has just sent a representative to glorify a Palestinian who murdered an Israeli mother and her two children, and has also sent a wreath to honor a suicide bomber who killed eight Israelis on a bus.
But as for Netanyahu, Obama told Goldberg: “When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation: if not now, when?” And: “where you’ve got a partner on the other side who is prepared to negotiate seriously…for us not to seize this moment I think would be a great mistake.”
And if Netanyahu were to keep failing to seize the moment and make peace with this ideal partner, Obama—as Secretary of State John Kerry did last month—foretold dire consequences. He claimed Israel was “already more isolated internationally,” and warned of an “absence of international goodwill…the condemnation of the international community,” a situation in which America’s “ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
As commentators have noted, this is a direct threat to a democratic ally from a president who has great difficulty taking credible stances toward the likes of Syria, Iran, and Russia.
Netanyahu, for his part, in his speech to AIPAC on Tuesday night, took pains to depict Israel for what it is—a humane democracy radically different from its enemies. He described his recent visit to an Israeli army field hospital on the Golan Heights that treats Syrian civilians injured in that country’s civil war, and said the patients there have
discovered what you’ve always known to be true: in the Middle East, bludgeoned by butchery and barbarism, Israel is humane; Israel is compassionate; Israel is a force for good.
It should not need pointing out—but it does at a time when a U.S. president and secretary of state keep berating Israel for allegedly not even wanting peace, or not wanting it as much as that exemplar of democratic, peace-loving values, Abbas.
From there Netanyahu turned his focus to the Iranian nuclear issue. Again, his words contrasted sharply with Obama’s in his Bloomberg interview.
There, after Obama described the current Iranian regime as “capable of changing” and as “strategic…not impulsive…respon[sive] to costs and benefits,” Goldberg asked him: “If sanctions got them to the table, why wouldn’t more sanctions keep them at the table?”
The essence of Obama’s reply:
The notion that in the midst of negotiations we would then improve our position by saying, “We’re going to squeeze you even harder,” ignores the fact that [President Hassan] Rouhani and the negotiators in Iran have their own politics. They’ve got to respond to their own hardliners....
Netanyahu, not surprisingly, painted a much gloomier picture of the situation. Referring to Iran’s current purported moderates, its “smiling president and “smooth-talking foreign minister,” he said that “if you listen to their words, their soothing words, they don’t square with Iran’s aggressive actions.”
Even in the midst of the diplomatic talks, Netanyahu stressed, Iran keeps building intercontinental ballistic missiles, “whose only purpose is to carry nuclear warheads” and that “can strike, right now, or very soon, the Eastern seaboard of the United States….” And as he also noted:
It’s not only that Iran doesn’t walk the walk. In the last few weeks, they don’t even bother to talk the talk. Iran’s leaders say they won’t dismantle a single centrifuge, they won’t discuss their ballistic missile program. And guess what tune they’re singing in Tehran? It’s not “God Bless America,” it’s “death to America.” And they chant this as brazenly as ever. Some charm offensive.
As well as being effective rhetoric, this is, it should be pointed out, factually true.
On the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu reiterated his basic positions that what prevents peace is the Palestinians’ ideological negation of the Jewish people and their right to the land, with the accompanying “fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees”; and that only Israeli forces—not foreign troops—can ensure Israel’s security.
Again, the former position puts him squarely at odds with Obama’s paean to Abbas as peace angel; and the latter one is a rebuff to Kerry’s efforts to get Israel to accept foreign deployments in the Jordan Valley.
Netanyahu’s last topic was the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign against Israel. While saying it did not “mean that the BDS movement shouldn’t be vigorously opposed,” Netanyahu stated that “BDS is nothing but a farce.”
And he explained what he meant:
Beyond our traditional trading partners, countries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America…these countries are flocking to Israel. They’re not coming to Israel; they’re flocking to Israel.
They want Israeli technology to help transform their countries as it has ours. And it’s not just the small countries that are coming to Israel, it’s also the superpowers. You know, the other superpowers: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Facebook, Yahoo. They come because they want to benefit from Israel’s unique ingenuity, dynamism and innovation.
And I could tell you the BDS boycott movement is not going to stop that anymore than the Arab boycott movement could stop Israel from becoming a global technological power. They are going to fail….
Again, this may fly in the face of Obama’s and Kerry’s admonitions about the isolation supposedly overtaking Israel, but it is factually accurate and is the reason most Israelis don’t take these warnings seriously. (For recent overviews of Israel’s thriving trade and other ties with both state and nonstate actors, see here, here, and here.)
Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech was essentially, then, a well-crafted rebuttal of the threats and delusions emanating from Washington, which does not believe Israel understands much about the region and remains blind to its insights. Israel will manage regardless.
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