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Bibi and Obama: Who’s the One Being Disrespected?

Benjamin Netanyahu has a well-earned reputation as a prickly and not particularly likable man. But the effort on the part of some writers to brand his reply to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East yesterday as showing “disrespect” is the height of absurdity.

That’s the line that the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg took today when he slammed Netanyahu for saying that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both House of Congress.” According to Goldberg, who is now also being echoed by John R. Guardino at the American Spectator, Netanyahu is being uppity. Vassal states, even ones Americans (including those two writers) support, have no business “expecting” anything from their suzerain, the president of the United States. To their way of thinking, an Israeli leader talking back to Obama is “disrespectful.” How dare he tell Obama that he has violated past promises—past American promises—in order to place extra pressure on Israel to surrender territory, even though we all know that the Palestinians have no intention of making peace no matter where Israel’s borders are drawn? If Obama is inclined to treat the Jewish state cavalierly, then I suppose Netanyahu should just say, “Thank you, sir. May I please have another?”

To compare Netanyahu’s answer to the sort of anti-American slanders of a Hugo Chavez or the transparent lies of Pakistani officials who claim to have had no knowledge of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, as Goldberg does, is more than a bit over the top.

But both Goldberg and Guardino are ignoring the context of a dispute that was carefully planned by the White House to show disrespect to Netanyahu. The president’s inclusion of a passage proclaiming the sanctity of the 1967 lines in a speech otherwise intended to deal with the Arab Spring revolts on the day before Netanyahu arrived in the United States for a visit was more than just “awkward” as Goldberg put it. It was a clear provocation aimed at embarrassing the Israeli.

They are also forgetting that this is not the first time that Barack Obama has picked a pointless fight with Israel during his presidency. Obama threw a monkey wrench into the already stalled peace process in 2009 by insisting on a unilateral concession from Israel in the form of a settlement freeze. Obama’s goal was to destabilize Netanyahu’s government but all he accomplished was to convince the Palestinians there was no reason for them to negotiate as long as Obama was hammering the Israelis. A year later, Obama picked a fight over building homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and then personally insulted Netanyahu when he came to the White House to talk it over.

Israel needs the United States and its leaders are obligated to speak and act respectfully towards the president. But there is a difference between “disrespect” and an ally reminding the president that broken promises won’t be ignored. Respect goes two ways and Obama, a leader who has a history of cavalierly dismissing the sensibilities of American allies, cannot pretend that he is the injured party here. Having picked this fight in a particularly undiplomatic manner, Obama has no business playing the victim.