Obama: His Words and His Deeds
(New York Review of Books) -- by David Bromwich --
...Only a fraction of Obama’s May 19 speech was allotted to Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet the concrete language of that part—which contained names and dates, if not numbers—drew immediate and heated comment. The most controversial sentence was doubtless this: “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” It was a plain statement of an obvious truth. Obama, in addition, said that the shape of a Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 borders of Israel, only altered in accordance with “mutually agreed [land] swaps.”
This had been the common understanding and phraseology of American-Israeli-Palestinian discussions over two decades; but in the past several years, the word “1967” was used less than before; and this became the detail Benjamin Netanyahu seized upon. Immediately after the speech, he issued a statement in Jerusalem that the 1967 borders of Israel were “indefensible.” He repeated the same objection after he met with Obama in the White House. The differences between the two leaders were played out once more in their speeches to the annual AIPAC convention.
Without backing down, Obama explained the meaning of his reference to 1967: the borders of course would not stay the same, but land swaps would offset the differences. This candor, on the occasions when Obama shows it, is an impressive quality, and it seemed to be appreciated even by the AIPAC audience. Besides, on May 19 he conceded most of what Netanyahu could have asked. He alluded to Gaza only once. He offered no criticism of new Israeli settlements, as he had done in Cairo two years ago, and made no mention of the dispossession of Palestinians on the West Bank.
From his silence on these points, it was clear that after the failure of the most recent shuttle diplomacy and the resignation of George Mitchell on May 13, Obama personally planned to initiate no further negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He trusted that under the visible pressure of an Arab Spring of their own, now gathering on both sides of Israel’s borders, most Israelis would eventually see his words as a kindly prophecy.
Netanyahu struck back as if Obama had mounted a deliberate assault with a threat of lasting enmity. Yet Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC was emollient compared to his speech to Congress on May 24. There he made a conquest that can have few precedents. He began with brash familiarity, in a backslapping salute to Joe Biden; spoke with boyish humor about his early years as a diplomat within the Beltway, and his knowledge of an America beyond it; reestablished, with passion and simplicity, the close ties between America and Israel that Obama had sought to view with an impartial loyalty; in short, pulled out all the stops to undercut President Obama on his native ground. The speech itself was a tissue of clichés, anecdotes, and half-truths, but delivered with dramatic buoyancy and urgency as if his life depended on it.
Congress gave Netanyahu twenty-nine standing ovations. How did he do it? By presenting himself to his audience as an all-but-American politician—one less lucky than they, and more brave, a leader with a fight on his hands; a real fight, in his own backyard and not six thousand miles away. He spoke with gusto of his part in an earlier episode of that never-ending war:
I was nearly killed in a firefight inside the Suez Canal—I mean that literally: inside the Suez Canal. I was going down to the bottom, with a forty-pound pack, ammunition pack on my back, and somebody reached out to grab me and they’re still looking for the guy who did such a stupid thing.
Netanyahu did not speak of the subsidized increase of Israeli settlements that accounts for the “certain facts on the ground” he had mentioned at the White House. He invoked the biblical names of Judea and Samaria as if they were as natural to modern Israel as St. Louis is to the state of Missouri. And Congress loved him, or seemed to think it should, from the very moment when he said in a flattering exordium: “Congratulations America. Congratulations, Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance!” The performance combined the maximum of demagogy with the maximum of smarm, and it mixed aggression, paternalism, and a preening collective self-love, in proportions that Netanyahu assumed Americans would be comforted by. Israel, this speech said, has everything in common with America. We are the home of freedom and wisdom among the ancients, just as you Americans are among the moderns.
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was also part of a larger strategy of his right-wing coalition. He got his invitation to address Congress from Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, and the Republican Party is now working to detach Jewish donors from the Democrats and to convert Republicans at large to the Likud and neoconservative politics that support a greater Israel. In the pitch offered to Americans, taking sections of the West Bank from Palestinians is as warranted as the taking of lands from American Indians. Mike Huckabee has indicated his sympathy with this point of view. Sarah Palin wore a Star of David on her necklace in her recent liberty tour. Glenn Beck has planned a mass event, “Restoring Courage,” on August 24 at the Southern Wall excavations in the city of Jerusalem. Americans of the chauvinist and evangelical right are being invited to think of Israel as a second homeland.
Considered as a response to this predicament, Obama’s speech at the State Department, with its broad-gauge pronouncements and its candor regarding Palestine, was utterly overmatched by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. It is an unhappy fact of politics that victory goes to the pressure that will not let up. Netanyahu’s belief in his immoderate purpose is stronger than Obama’s belief in his moderate purpose...MORE...LINK