When Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress this week, he started the speech by congratulating President Barack Obama on killing Osama bin Laden. He bookended the remarks by expressing his appreciation for Obama's position that peace could not be imposed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, the address was peppered with compliments to the American president, who was traveling through Ireland and the United Kingdom, and to the American people.
Yet the speech, and its reception, deftly shamed Obama for his rush to show up Israel and pressure the U.S. ally into concessions. It also established the Israeli prime minister as the real statesman in the conflict.
Last week, the White House promoted the president’s speech on the Mideast as Cairo II, one that would address the Arab Spring with specific American approaches to freedom and self-determination in the region. Instead, Obama delivered a mix of generalizations about democratization that could just as easily have been delivered by George W. Bush and a short list of foreign-aid pledges that sounded more like a State of the Union presentation.
In fact, Obama only included one significant new, specific item in his speech:
"We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state."
Even this isn't all that new. It’s no secret that U.S. plans for a two-state solution have been based for several years on the 1967 lines, with land swaps to account for demographic changes. Hillary Clinton publicly said something similar in 2009. But the secretary of state is not the president, and no president has given that concession publicly, or made it into an implicit demand.
The Israelis exploded in anger. They insist — rightly — that any decision on borders has to come from negotiations with Palestinians that recognize the right of Israel to exist at all. To start off with the 1967 border concession just after the Palestinian Authority signed a partnership deal with Hamas is seen in Israel as a retreat. In the end, Hamas rejected the idea out of hand anyway, demanding a return to the 1948 border as the starting point of negotiations, even while they refuse to change their charter that calls for the destruction of Israel altogether.
Netanyahu arrived in Washington the day after Obama's speech, but not before publicly rejecting the 1967 lines as "indefensible." The two allies held an awkward press conference the next day, at which the Israeli prime minister lectured the president on Israeli history and security, much to Obama's obvious unease. In doing so, Netanyahu attracted criticism about appearing ungracious to his host, who is still the head of the nation that remains Israel’s most important ally.
Obama responded two days later by telling the Jewish lobbying group AIPAC somewhat defensively that of course the borders between the two states would not resemble the 1967 borders:
"By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. That's what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”
If that's true, and to a large extent it is, then why did Obama bother to mention it at all, especially when Netanyahu objected to the idea when asked by the White House prior to the first speech? The border will have to recognize demographic and security concerns for both states; that much is obvious. There is no need to publicly pin Israel or the United States down to 1967 lines that don’t reflect current reality anyway, especially when the Palestinians have decided rapprochement with a terrorist group is more important than the peace process.
Instead of scolding and lecturing again, Netanyahu turned on the charm with Congress — and Congress responded. The Israeli deftly handled a protest in the gallery by noting that such dissent would never be tolerated in Tehran, allowing him a natural segue into a lengthy discourse about our common enemy in Iran. He lauded American support for Israel and the partnership that helps Israel secure its own nation without American military assistance. And Netanyahu took every opportunity to praise Obama while making it clear that the president had gone in exactly the wrong direction regarding the peace process.
That message resonated with Republicans and Democrats alike. Even before Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, members of Obama’s own party had openly opposed Obama’s calls for a return to the 1967 border. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sharply criticized the imposition of terms outside of negotiation; he avoided using Obama's name, but the message was clear.
So was the thunderous applause Netanyahu received from the joint session of Congress. According to ABC News, Netanyahu got more standing ovations than Obama's last State of the Union speech, 29 as compared to 25 in Obama’s much longer January 2011 address. One of the longest rounds of applause came from Netanyahu's defiant statement, "Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967," a direct reply to Obama.
Congress reacted to the power of Netanyahu's words, his obvious affection for America, and his steadfast stance against terrorism and insistence on negotiation rather than extortion. Even if Netanyahu's lecture on Friday had no impact on Obama, the schooling Netanyahu delivered on Tuesday and Congress's enthusiastic response should definitely leave an impression on the president — or at least leave a mark.