Jacob Heilbrunn

Exposing Obama

Exposures seem to be much in the air at the National Interest these days. Paul Pillar has a withering critique of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu for what he sees as patent obfuscations about the peace process. Meanwhile, Richard Cohen, in today's Washington Post, has written a stimulating column about the Netanyahu clan, father and son, and the old man's service to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the hardest of the Zionist hardliners.

The thrust of Jabotinsky's conception of a Zionist state was that the Jews would not be able to extrude the Arabs. Instead, they would have to refuse negotiations with them until the day arrived when the Palestinian leadership was composed of moderates and prepared to compromise. Cohen believes that day has arrived. So, apparently, does President Obama. He and Netanyahu are engaged in a protracted tussle over the basis of negotiations, with Netanyahu vehemently rejecting what he decries as Obama's unrealistic insistence on using the 1967 borders as a starting point. Here's how the Los Angeles Times describes Netanyahu's appearance before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee:


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday repeated his criticism of President Obama's plan for peace negotiations with Palestinians, saying that his country could not return to the boundaries it had before 1967 because of the risks it would pose to Israel's security.

In remarks to a pro-Israel lobby, Netanyahu said that while Israel is eager to negotiate a peace deal, "it must leave Israel with security. Therefore, it cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines."


This is no revelation. It's boilerplate. Of course Israel won't return to the 1967 borders. For one thing, it wouldn't be able to dismantle some of the big settlements even if, by some miracle, the Israeli left came to power again. It would create a civil war in Israel given the size of some of the settlements. And Obama keeps emphasizing that he's OK with land swaps.

So what's going on here? Is Netanyahu deliberately misreading Obama to shore up his constituency at home? Does Obama really want Israel to be shorn of most of its settlements? Or is Obama, in fact, secretly making life easier for Netanyahu? Is he, in fact, playing the heavy so that when it comes time to make painful concessions, Netanyahu can turn to his base and say, "Look, I hung tough as long as I could against this anti-Israel monster, this president who completely fails to understand our security predicament. I wrung the best deal that I could, and extracted unprecedented concessions from America in return."

Perhaps. At this point Netanyahu may well loathe Obama far more than he does Abbas. But the real mystery, then, isn't Netanyahu. It's what Obama is trying to accomplish. Either he is being fiendishly clever—or he is inadvertently prompting Netanyahu to become even more intransigent. At a minimum, Obama has succeeded in stirring up renewed debate about Israel and the Palestinians. Where it will all lead is another matter. But Obama is steadily exposing himself on the Israel issue. To do so with a presidential election looming is either testament to stubborn conviction or sheer foolhardiness.