D. Bloomfield
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
May 25, 2011 - 12:00am

US-Israel strategic relations may be stronger than ever, but politically the alliance took an unnecessary body blow over the past week as the prime minister of Israel sat in the Oval Office on live TV lecturing the US president in a tone Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg said “suggested he was speaking to an ignoramus.”

Why would a smart fellow like Binyamin Netanyahu (with two degrees from MIT) deliberately distort what Barack Obama had said the day before? The president had merely restated longstanding US policy that had also been the position of previous Israeli prime ministers – that the 1967 lines should be a reference point for negotiations with the Palestinians, subject to mutually agreed land swaps – not the final borders.

That’s essentially what George W. Bush said in his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon and his 2005 statement to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, according to the former president’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.

AIPAC issued a statement acknowledging Obama “does not expect Israel to withdraw” to pre-’67 boundaries.” If they can figure that out, why can’t Netanyahu?

Why would Netanyahu tell Israeli reporters that Obama was deviating from longstanding US policy and charting a dangerous new course when he knew that wasn’t true? Has he forgotten that the Palestinians have agreed in prior talks to border changes and land swaps?

Either he was being deliberately misleading, or the 61-year-old prime minister was suffering a senior moment, because he apparently forgot that last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the same formulation in a joint statement with him.

Netanyahu may have dissed the American president to the applause of his right-wing base, but he should know better. The last time Netanyahu – who once boasted, “I speak Republican” – tried to demonize an American Democratic president – in cahoots with then-GOP House leader Newt Gingrich – he was soon out of a job.

Israeli voters put a high value on their prime minister maintaining strong ties with their country’s best and most powerful friend. If Netanyahu is banking on Obama being a one-term president – “Hi, Newt, it’s your old pal Bibi” – he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.

New York Jewish Week’s hawkishly pro-Israel editor, Gary Rosenblatt, called Netanyahu’s Oval Office display a “hasbara disaster” that makes him “the Mideast’s Mr. No.”

The prime minister should have taken a lesson from his own good advice to Menachem Begin on how to respond to Ronald Reagan’s 1982 peace plan. Instead of outright rejection, Netanyahu counseled, accentuate the positive, offer to discuss the negative, and wait for the Palestinians to find a way to disappoint Washington (as they eventually did). Begin rejected that, declared a resounding no, and put an unnecessary chill on the relationship.

Tzipi Livni may be the opposition leader, but her advice to Netanyahu is valid: “A prime minister who harms the relationship with the US over something insubstantial is harming Israel’s security and deterrence.”

AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr spoke of the importance of “trust and confidence” between American and Israeli leaders. That doesn’t exist today, especially after Netanyahu’s sordid, politically motivated Oval Office performance. Obama is not alone; his counterparts in Britain, France and Germany, simply don’t trust Netanyahu either, and don’t believe he is serious about making peace.

With so much complaining by Netanyahu, it is understandable that most people missed the bad news Obama had for the Palestinians. They demanded Israel accept Obama’s terms, but rejected doing so themselves – particularly his call for them to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Obama was much tougher on Palestinians than on Israel, despite Netanyahu’s kvetching, and despite the spin from right-of-center Jewish groups here.

“No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state,” he said. “You are not going to be able to do an end run around the Israelis.” The president branded Fatah’s unity deal with Hamas an “enormous obstacle” to peace. He denounced the Palestinian campaign to delegitimize Israel and isolate it at the UN. There was no American call for a settlement freeze, and he said negotiations broke down because the Palestinians “have walked away from talks.” The Palestinian state must be demilitarized. The president did not produce an American peace plan, as Palestinians had hoped, nor did he set a deadline for resuming talks or concluding an agreement.

Bush’s adviser Hadley said Obama had put the burden on the Palestinians to show they were ready to accept Israel and negotiate peace.

Obama reiterated what has become boilerplate for all presidents: bonds between the US and Israel are “unbreakable,” America’s “profound commitment” to Israel’s survival and its “qualitative military edge” are “ironclad.” “Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate,” he said.

Don’t look for any administration follow up. The past week’s performances remind me of the current TV season, which drew to a close this month – a number of cliffhangers to get you to tune in again come September. That’s when the new season is due to kick off with the Showdown at Turtle Bay, as Palestinians try to bypass negotiations with Israel and seek UN membership, something Obama has vowed to fight.

Meanwhile, enjoy the summer hiatus and look out for the reruns and fireworks.


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