George Lucas (who incidentally should be legally barred from ever writing dialogue) wrote some of his cheesiest lines in the new Star Wars films when he was waxing political.
One of the worst actually resonated today as I watched Benjamin Netanyahu’s triumphant speechto a joint meeting of Congress. Lucas had Natalie Portman (who was,
coincidentally, born in Jerusalem) say: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”
Today, that was how the American Congress greeted the death of hope for peace in Israel and Palestine any time soon.
Congress, thoroughly beholden to AIPAC and completely indifferent to the best interests of not only the Palestinians but also Israel and their own country, cheered the home team as it defeated the President of the United States.
The home team, in this case, was Netanyahu.
The game started last Thursday with Obama’s tepid attempt at the State Department to clarify his murky foreign policy. He really didn’t do that, but he mentioned the 1967 borders. Despite the fact that not only has that been the basis for negotiation, the only possible one, all along, Bibi and his stooges in Congress on both sides of the aisle made this a phony issue.
They intentionally misrepresented what Obama said and accused him of calling on Israel to – GASP – obey international law and pull back to the 1967 borders. He said nothing of the kind, but, hey, why let facts get in the way?
The next day, Bibi turned up the heat, and actually overplayed his hand. Sitting in the Oval Office and on global television, Netanyahu lectured the President of the United States; defied him by repeating the false accusation on the ’67 borders; left no option, no matter what Hamas does, of talking with a Palestinian unity government (contradicting Obama, who tried to leave a small crack in the door to talks); and virtually ordered the President of the world’s most powerful nation to inform the Palestinians that no refugees would return to Israel.
In that talk, it was not the content that was troublesome; it’s been clear for some time, as the Palestine Papers revealed, that the ’67 borders would be modified and that all but a very few refugees would be dealt with outside of Israel. And no one ever expected the US or Israel to tolerate Hamas’ presence in the Palestinian government.
No, the problem was a foreign leader treating the US President like his lackey. And people noticed.
Bibi’s performance played poorly in Israel.
“Netanyahu understood that he had broken a rule that an Israeli leader must not break – he had come between the two American parties in an election period,” Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, two leading Israeli commentators, wrote in the leading Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot.
Staunchly pro-Israel columnist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic called Netanyahu’s behavior at the press conference “pedantic” and “shocking”.
For two days, Netanyahu regrouped, while it was Obama’s turn at bat. And Obama did very well.
His speech at AIPAC was friendly, but he asserted himself as the President. It was an AIPAC speech, so it was bound to sit poorly with the Palestinians, but essentially, Obama not only stood fast on his ’67 borders statement, he took his shots at those who had so brazenly and willfully distorted his words, by implication indicting a number of people in the room as well as Netanyahu.
Obama then made the case for the urgency of peace, something that hit many in the audience hard, for certain, while the hardliners already knew it and didn’t care. Obama explained, patiently but with the tone of a man in charge, that the Arab population being held without rights by Israel was growing, the Arab Spring means that popular Arab opinion is going to matter a lot more than it has, new technology is going to make Israel more vulnerable despite its military might and the international community is getting tired of waiting for Israel to become reasonable.
Those weren’t his words, but they were his message. Yet his manner of delivering that message earned not opprobrium, but applause. The President couldn’t have scripted it better, for an AIPAC appearance.
Obama knew very well that his words, at State, in the Oval Office and at AIPAC, were all going to alienate the Palestinians even further. He also knew that his domestic constraints prevented him from even coming close to giving the Palestinians anything remotely resembling incentive to come back to the talks.
Knowing all of that, Obama tried to at least salvage some future for the two-state solution. Netanyahu, however, sensing his advantage, came in to ensure he could not. And he used the most reliable tool in his arsenal—Congress.
Netanyahu’s address to Congress was a home run. He struck a perfect tone, and set it up well in his appearance at AIPAC the night before.
At the AIPAC gala, Netanyahu spoke largely in aphorisms, stressing the ideas of shared values and interests, and reassuring everyone in the audience that their loyalty to Israel didn’t just compliment their loyalty to the US, the two were in fact one and the same.
Bibi promised the AIPAC crowd that he would tell Congress what he saw a peace agreement with the Palestinians looking like. He didn’t disappoint.
Here’s what Netanyahu’s “vision” boils down to:
- Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state
- Israel will maintain control of the major settlement blocs (Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel) as well as the Jordan Valley. Bibi even hinted that Israel might keep Hebron.
- Jerusalem will remain entirely in Israeli hands
- No Palestinian refugees would return to Israel
- Israel will decide who may be part of a Palestinian government, which would only come into being when Israel is satisfied with security arrangements, in a de-militarized state whose airspace would still be controlled by Israel
If these were Israel’s negotiating positions, that would be very troubling, but not an absolute game-stopper.
But Congress gave a standing ovation to every piece of this (albeit that many of the members probably didn’t understand all the things they were cheering for). Some of these are things the President would support, some not. Those that he would not, he would have to fight with Congress over. Effectively, then, the Palestinians could only hope for some small compromise on a couple of the points.
Netanyahu won the game. And why? Because he got the last licks, as the home team always does in a baseball game. You’d think that the President of the United States would be the home team in this scenario. But in the absurd universe of Middle East politics in Washington, an Israeli Prime Minister finds more support than an American President.
Netanyahu came with a blatantly anti-peace agenda. All Congress wanted from him is to dress it up to look like a peace initiative to a lot of Americans who either don’t know any better or, with the Israel-first crew, who couldn’t care less.
And so he did.
One moment of his AIPAC speech was very telling. Bibi quoted a verse of the Torah: “U’kratem Dror BaAretz L’chol Yoshveha.” He translated it as “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.” Well, that is an accurate translation…for the first part. Bibi, who surely knows that some of his audience knows Biblical Hebrew, simply left the last two words untranslated, brazenly tipping his hand for those of us who could understand it.
The last two words mean “for all who dwell in it.” You can see why he didn’t want to add that part..
In the end, this all may work out for the better for Palestinians. Israel’s credibility on peace is completely shot outside the US. The United States itself has never been as shameless in its blind support of Israel, over the interests of justice and human rights and even its own self-interest, as Congress showed us to be today.
Nothing is going to prevent the Palestinians from pursuing the vote in the UN on statehood in September now. They have absolutely no incentive to halt that drive, nor for Fatah to split again with Hamas.
But Europe has its own interest in the Mideast, and, as Obama noted, they are growing impatient. American efforts are now likely to focus not on stopping the Palestinian push for a vote, but on persuading the key European countries – mainly Great Britain, France and Germany—not to vote for it.
Soon, Palestine will be a UN member state, and international pressure on Israel will grow. The United States will become increasingly irrelevant in the Middle East, and the rising tide of Arab popular influence is not going to forget any of this.
It could well be, as MJ Rosenberg sees it, that this will mean a new course that will actually lead to Palestinian liberation this time.
Maybe so. But I have always believed that the Palestinians would eventually win their freedom on some reasonable terms. I have worked for a two-state solution because I have also felt that the sooner the Palestinians are freed, the better it will be for Israel and for my own country, the US. It seems, after today, that that battle is lost.