The contrast between the focus, clarity, and grace of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 24 May speech before Congress1 and President Obama’s uncertainly focused 19 May speech at the State Department2 does the president no favors. It leaves this reviewer wondering just what the president had in mind and doubting that he—or his speech writers—have a sufficient grasp of Middle Eastern culture, history, and strategy as the basis for Mr. Obama’s “new chapter in American diplomacy.”
Seemingly eager to claim very personal credit for the military drawdown in Iraq, an asserted breaking of the Taliban’s “momentum” in Afghanistan, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the president speaks of having “already” done much to shift American foreign policy. Each of those achievements, however, rested importantly on the intelligence agencies and the armed forces—both of which deserved great praise—and our allies within Iraq and Afghanistan. With the possible exception of the Afghan “surge,” each of those also successes rested on strategies put in place well before January 2009. Why not acknowledge that?
The president then moved to a more central point, the demonstrations that have become known, perhaps prematurely, as the Arab Spring. Again taking the short view, he chose to trace the demonstrations against Arab governments to the December 2010 self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi. That is to confuse the spark with the tender that burst into flames. The president could have shown himself a better man had he acknowledged the Bush “peace agenda,” the Iraqi elections, and the protests following the Iranian elections as providing the combustible material that helped put thousands of young people into the streets of Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen.
Nor does the president offer much beyond rhetorical support to demonstrators demanding change or give due attention to those Middle Eastern countries still governed by oppressive and terror-sponsoring governments dominated by Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, and Iran’s ayatollahs. When he identifies regimes in need of democratization, he is also inconsistently silent about Saudi Arabia and its Wahabbi faction, which promotes a reactionary and hateful form of Islam around the world.
Unwilling to end his talk with a vague recitation of things the U.S. might do to support Middle Eastern democratic groups, the president chose to plunge into Israeli-Palestinian issues. Why? Palestinians have not been in the streets demanding a change in their oppressive Hamas and Fatah governments. Fatah’s political alliance with Hamas would seem to bar negations of any sort with a terrorist organization. Demanding that Israel “act boldly to advance a lasting peace” might appeal to the Arabs but risked offending a Middle Eastern ally on the eve of its prime minister’s visit to the United States. Did the president not perceive that, or did he use his words as a means to deter the Palestinians and the UN from declaring and defining the borders of a new Palestinian state?
When outlining what Israel’s bold peace proposal might be, the president showed little restraint or depth of knowledge about decades of diplomatic and armed conflict. Sloppy drafting in references to borders “based” on the 1967 lines suggested carelessness regarding the impact of his words on the ability of Israel to defend itself, which a proposal that Israel withdrawal its forces from the West Bank only exacerbated. He identified the “fate of Palestinian refugees”—in fact the children and grandchildren of those who left Israel after its independence—as something to be negotiated without indicating whether they were to seek refuge in Israel or the West Bank. As between that and Gaza, whatever did a right to a “contiguous state” mean—a corridor that would cut Israel in two? Then there is the not inconsequential matter of negotiating with a Fatah-Hamas alliance that includes one member sworn to destroy Israel and kill Jews wherever they may be found.
By the time the president had completed his speech, whatever of positive value that existed in its first three quarters had been overwhelmed by the incredible clumsiness and incomprehensibility of its last section.
Those who heard or read Netanyahu’s later presentation to Congress had the benefit of observing the prime minister bring clarity to issues (intentionally?) muddied by the president. The prime minister also had the grace to express his appreciation for decades of American support and made clear that in Israel the U.S. had a dependable democratic ally in the Middle East, one able to defend itself.
Netanyahu also demanded more of the Arab Spring than demonstrations and promised elections. Arab governments must not only “permit protests in town squares, [but also place] limits on the powers of rulers, [ensure] judges are beholden to laws and not men, [and guarantee] that human rights cannot be crushed by tribal loyalties or mob rule.” In contrast to the 300 million Arabs of the Middle East, Israel’s one million Arab citizens already enjoy all those rights—as well as the freedom to worship.
Not enthralled by the Arab Spring, Netanyahu reminded members of the U.S. Congress: “Militant Islam threatens the world. It threatens Islam.” He also called attention to the still unresolved problem of Iran’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and observed that Iran’s ayatollahs and Libya’s Gadhafi had both suspended their weapons programs only in 2003 when both countries feared an American military assault.
The prime minister also reminded members of Congress that he had committed Israel to a two-state solution. In short, Israel would surrender most of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), once part of historic Israel—so long as Israel could maintain a military presence on the Jordan River, the Palestinian state was demilitarized, and the resulting boundaries did not confine Israel within indefensible borders and close the suburbs of Jerusalem to the “vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis living beyond the 1967 lines.” Unlike the president, the prime minister made his position clear.
Netanyahu also lamented that Palestinians presently seem unprepared for an endurable two-state solution. Though Israel had said “yes” to the 1947 borders defined by the UN, the Arabs responded not with peace but the first of their military attacks. Though Israel more recently withdrew from Gaza and south Lebanon, it received not peace but rocket attacks.