By stating that America expected any future Middle East peace accord to be based on the 1967 borders, President Barack Obama has placed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the most difficult of positions. Although he couched this demand in a context of support for Israeli security and opposition to Palestinian efforts to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state, Obama has profoundly undermined Netanyahu’s negotiating position. Netanyahu’s dilemma is how to resist an American dictat without allowing this dispute to escalate into a public spat that would further distance the Israelis from their only ally. The answer is that Netanyahu must stick to his principles and his insistence on defending Israel’s rights and security while not allowing himself to be baited into an angry exchange with Obama.
In his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, the frosty relations between Netanyahu and President Clinton got so bad that it not only hurt the alliance between the two countries but also undermined the Israeli’s political support at home. Given a second chance with his 2009 election victory, Netanyahu has been determined not to repeat that mistake. In the past two years, Netanyahu responded to angry attacks that both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton with forbearance. Though he dug in his heels on the question of Jerusalem, he refused to respond angrily to the administration’s determination to distance itself from Israel.
Though the situation is, if anything, even more parlous this week as he arrives in Washington for meetings with Obama and a speech to the AIPAC conference (which Obama will also address), Netanyahu must adopt the same rope-a-dope tactics that allowed him to withstand brutal pressure from the administration in the past. He must, as he has already, thank Obama for his dedication to peace and public support for Israel and repeat that Israel is willing to negotiate without preconditions at any time.
Although Obama seems to think that Israel has no choice but to bend to his will, Netanyahu knows that in the long run, this latest proposal will come to nothing. Though it has damaged his negotiating position with the Palestinians who will now simply demand a unilateral retreat to the 1967 borders without giving up anything in return, there is little danger that the Fatah-Hamas coalition running the Palestinian Authority will ever agree to recognize Israel’s legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. Indeed, far from enticing the Palestinians to return to negotiations, Obama will soon discover that his speech will merely encourage them to stick to their plan to try to get the United Nations to endorse a Palestinian state without any recognition of Israel or agreeing to end the conflict.
Obama seems to be seeking an open spat with Israel’s government, but Netanyahu must not give him the satisfaction. As was the case when he previously outmaneuvered Obama, the prime minister must avoid public argument while restating his refusal to abandon Jerusalem. In the end, Obama’s speech will turn out to be just one more American peace plan, albeit one that is even more damaging to Israel than its predecessors.