Commentary Magazine


Obama Has Failed to Isolate Netanyahu

President Obama and his staff thought they were being very clever by throwing in the declaration that the 1967 borders were the baseline for future Middle East peace talks into his speech on the Arab Spring protests on the eve of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They calculated Netanyahu would have no choice but to accept this last-minute slap across the face from his country’s only ally. And if he did talk back, they figured he would find himself isolated without the backing of Israel’s allies in Congress and with most of the American media lined up solidly against him.

But Obama appears to have misread the situation. Netanyahu’s strong reply rightly declaring that the 1967 borders were indefensible may have infuriated the White House, but, contrary to their plan, not everybody is jeering his defiance.

The Washington Post editorial page took the president to school on Friday for injecting a counter-productive irritant into Middle East policy. As the Post wrote:

Mr. Obama’s decision to confront [Netanyahu] with a formal U.S. embrace of the idea, with only a few hours’ warning, ensured a blowup. Israeli bad feeling was exacerbated by Mr. Obama’s failure to repeat past U.S. positions — in particular, an explicit stance against the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Mr. Obama should have learned from his past diplomatic failures — including his attempt to force a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank — that initiating a conflict with Israel will thwart rather than advance peace negotiations. He may also be giving short shrift to what Mr. Netanyahu called “some basic realities.” The president appears to assume that Mr. Abbas is open to a peace deal despite growing evidence to the contrary.

The defection of a major editorial page such as that of the Post is a blow to the idea that Israel and Netanyahu have been isolated by Obama’s strategy. Jewish Democrats—an important constituency for Obama—were also less than thrilled. Members of Congress such as Anthony Weiner, Elliot Engel, Steve Israel and Shelly Berkley were all critical of Obama. Prominent Jewish Democrat Alan Dershowitz who has been one of the president’s principal apologists in the past told CNN that Obama had hurt the peace process.

While Obama can count on the support of lickspittle groups like the National Jewish Democratic Council and even the Anti-Defamation League, an organization so addicted to access to the White House that it seems to have lost the courage to speak truth to power, he has failed to rally an overwhelming body of Jewish opinion against Netanyahu, as he had hoped. Indeed, the more Netanyahu pushed back against the president, as he did in his eloquent rebuttal on Friday in the White House with the president sitting next him, the stronger his position became.

Obama will speak to the AIPAC conference today while Netanyahu will also appear there in addition to the Israeli’s scheduled address to Congress on Tuesday. There is every expectation that the president will water down his challenge to Israel in his AIPAC speech, as pro-Israel activists sit on their hands or give him only tepid applause. But Netanyahu will stand his ground, restating his objections to the U.S. dictat and do so to the cheers of both houses of Congress. These speeches may be the proof, if any was yet lacking, that the White House has once again outsmarted itself in an attempt to smack around Netanyahu.