One of the great mysteries in America politics is why the conservative right – and especial its born-again evangelical wing – all those folks who support Israel no matter what, on everything – don’t get the Jewish vote here, ever. Obama got maybe eighty percent of those votes last time around, even though he was saying maybe Israel should slow down building giant new settlements in territories that were in dispute, as the UN and international law were clear about the matter, and this was only making things much more unstable and tense in the region. There were the usual scattered cries that Obama hated Israel, and Sarah Palin made sure she always wore both her American flag pin and her Israeli flag pin, and boasted she had the flag of Israel in her office – she always had. But no one bothered to confirm that. And Sarah Palin had said about Israel that they have a growing population, they need land, and so they should build settlements anywhere they want, anywhere at all, and call that place Israel too. What’s the problem? She was disgusted that Obama was suggesting they slow that down. What’s wrong with him? Maybe it’s his middle name.
But the usual claim that the Republican Party was the Party of Israel – Jesus Land – and that they would protect Israel at all costs, even if that would mean America itself would end – wasn’t that big an issue in the campaign. There was too much else to talk about – Joe the Plumber and Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers and, in the last months, the collapse of the economy – and our two wars and how to make something useful of what we had done without thinking things through in the first place.
And the conservative right must have known the whole thing was a wasted effort. No matter what, they were not going to get the Jewish vote. Maybe it was all that talk about The Rapture and the Conversion of the Jews when the world ends soon – those who don’t convert, by accepting Jesus Christ as their savior, will, surely, go to hell. The idea is that the Jews are the proto-Christians. One day they’ll grow up and finally get it, and accept Jesus. So you pat them on the head and talk nice to them.
Yes, you can say the words – Praise Jesus! I love Israel! But that’s a mixed message. You don’t say one day you Jewish folks will actually grow up, and then you’ll do the right thing and become Christians. That is a tad patronizing, and quite offensive. So these guys weren’t the Party of Israel after all – just the Party of Jesus. There were of course policy matters too, and the conservative right’s proud and explicit anti-intellectualism. That doesn’t go over well with a people who make a big deal of careful scholarship. And there was the constant railing for years and years about the select few in New York who are really running things – Manhattan is full of Jews you see, greedy bankers and liberal professors at NYU and Woody Allen and whatnot. And on the other coast Hollywood is ruining America with its nasty movies full of sex and contempt for Christians and real Americans. And who runs Hollywood? That sort of thing didn’t help either. The whole thing was hopeless. They were not going to get the Jewish vote.
But such things have always been bubbling along in the background of American politics, as we kind of created Israel. Yes, the United States was instrumental in the creation of Israel – in 1947, the British government withdrew from its commitment to the Mandate of Palestine, as there was no way to arrive at a solution of who should run what, no solution that was acceptable to both Arabs and Jews. So the newly created United Nations – created in San Francisco and then headquartered in New York – approved the UN Partition Plan (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181) on November 29, 1947 – divide Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Jerusalem was to be designated an international city administered by the UN, to avoid conflict over its status. On May 14, 1948, the day before the end of the British Mandate, the Jewish Agency proclaimed independence, naming the country Israel. And then this:
Margaret Truman said it was the most difficult decision Harry Truman ever faced as president. Should he support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, or shouldn’t he?
Presidential advisers and the government were split. Clark Clifford, Truman’s legal counsel, strongly favored recognition. The Jews deserved a sanctuary after the horror of the Holocaust, Clifford argued. Besides, the new state would likely come to pass whether Truman urged it or not.
But the Department of State, including the highly respected Secretary of State, George Marshall, advised against it, as did much of his cabinet. Truman greatly admired Marshall and had said that “there wasn’t a decoration big enough” to honor Marshall’s leadership during World War II. At a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, Marshall objected to quick US recognition of a Jewish homeland. It would look as if Truman was angling for Jewish votes, he said, and might endanger access to Arab oil. He went so far as to say that if Truman went ahead and recognized the new state, then Marshall would vote against him in the coming election.
Truman made his decision. Two days later, May 14, 1948 Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time. The United States announced its recognition of the new nation only 11 minutes later. And no one has been happy since. Israel fights along daily for its very existence, and the Palestinians want them gone. A tiny minority on each side still thinks they can get along with the other side – just establish an actual Palestinian state with real borders and all that, and work out the details of the original Mandate of Palestine, which posited the idea of something like coexistence.
How hard can that be? But the current Israeli government, building settlements in any disputed lands and saying, look, that’s Israel now, is not helping much. The angry factions of the Palestinians, lobbing rockets into Israel and occasionally blowing up a bus, are not making things easier either. We jumped in, in 1948, and made Israel possible. But we’re still working out the details of how this is supposed to work.
And now, President Obama, like many a president before him, gives it one more try, saying this:
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.
And the New York Times reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “reacted icily.” And the American right, by contrast, was sent into a near frenzy, or so Kevin Drum explains, saying you’d think this was the end of the world:
This is one of the reasons why the Israel-Palestine issue is so difficult to deal with for those of us who haven’t followed its every nuance for the past thirty years. I mean, this has been the basis of every peace negotiation in the Middle East for the past three decades, hasn’t it? Most recently it was the basis of Wye River, Camp David, and Taba. Whether it was stated in precisely that way or not, every proposed deal has involved two states, with borders to be negotiated based on the facts on the ground that Israel has so assiduously built up since 1967 – in other words, “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
And yet, for some reason, actually saying what’s been obvious for decades sends everyone into a tizzy. All because of some minuscule change in wording that, to ordinary ears, means nothing.
And Drum is puzzled:
Somebody help me out here. Pretend I’m five years old and you have to explain things in words of one syllable. Why is Obama’s formulation worthy of anything more than a yawn, let alone widespread outrage?
And in a later item, Drum continues:
Didn’t he just continue the policy of pretty much every president since Carter, namely that the eventual Israeli border on the West Bank will be based on the 1967 border with some expansions to include settlements built since the war? So what was the big deal? Well, after reading a bit more and watching some TV, I discovered that, yes, pretty much everyone who actually knows anything about the subject agrees that Obama’s formulation was a nothingburger. It’s the same policy as always.
So why is the right in such a lather about it? A friend emailed to suggest the obvious: normally, lathers take a day or so to build up. This one happened instantly. “The lather exploded fully formed from their foreheads,” she wrote. “I think that the lather was planned as soon as the word came out that Obama was going to make a speech on the Middle East.”
The verbal formula that essentially repeats the standard position of every recent US administration on the two-state solution did not strike me as anything new; in fact, it struck me as a minimalist response to Israel’s continued aggressive settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And yet instantly Drudge, Fox, Romney et al. blasted the “stunning” news that Israel had somehow been thrown under the bus.
None of this makes sense until you realize that Netanyahu had been given a heads-up by the administration. So it’s pretty obvious that it was the Israelis who immediately got their US media mouthpieces to spin the speech as some sort of attack. So those of you who think Jeffrey Goldberg and Walter Russell Mead and Victor Davis Hanson are a foreign government’s favored outlets should think again. These leftist radicals are far too unreliable a channel.
I guess that’s possible. A more parsimonious explanation is that the Drudge/Rush/Fox axis was, indeed, going to go nuts no matter what, and the “1967 borders” reference was just such an obvious attack point that that’s the one they chose. After all, the rest of the speech contained so much criticism of the Palestinians, including both a firm denunciation of Hamas and a warning not to seek statehood via the UN, that it was hard to find anything there that was really very detrimental to Israeli interests at all. Deliberately misconstruing Obama’s border comments was pretty much their only avenue.
But the speech was still a yawn:
The American right wing is still deranged. And peace in the Middle East is still not going to happen. You may now go about your business as if nothing has happened – because nothing has.
And Steve Benen comments:
During and immediately after the speech, the right’s message was pretty straightforward: Obama’s remarks could have easily been delivered by George W. Bush, which reinforces how great the Republican administration’s foreign policy really was, since it’s been embraced by a Democratic president. It was a dubious argument, at best, but that was the line.
A short while later, the conservative message changed. All of a sudden, Obama’s speech wasn’t like Bush’s at all, but rather, was a radical, anti-Israel vision that must be forcefully rejected.
ThinkProgress has the rundown on that and does Media Matters – Mitt Romney and everyone on Fox News saying Obama just threw Israel under the bus – the new formulation everyone was using. And it was that one thirty-word sentence – “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.”
I take this to mean that Israel would retain its major settlement blocs; that it would retain the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and that it would take West Bank land needed to thicken it at its most narrow point, in exchange for land adjacent to the Gaza Strip and the southern West Bank. I also interpret the saying “mutually agreed upon” to mean, well, “mutually agreed upon.” In other words, these boundaries would not be set without Israel’s approval.
I understand that Prime Minister Netanyahu is interpreting this as a major policy shift, and I understand that much of the media is going along with this interpretation. For what it’s worth, I don’t see a huge gap in the way these two Presidents framed the core issue.
Benen says that’s because there is no huge gap on this issue:
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in the nuances of U.S. policy in Israel, and I realize that granular-level details matter. If Obama emphasizes the wrong syllable on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s likely to be noticed and scrutinized.
But as near as I can tell, the president yesterday articulated the same position American administrations have taken for decades. Ah, Charles Krauthammer says, that may be, but no president has “ever before publicly and explicitly endorsed the 1967 lines.”
In other words, Obama said something scandalous by taking a U.S. policy that’s existed for a generation and saying that it’s U.S. policy.
I’m glad the right could clear this up for us.
But there is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – “While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines because these lines are indefensible. These were not the boundaries of peace. They were the boundaries of repeated wars because the attack on Israel was so attractive. So we can’t go back to those indefensible lines and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan.”
And Josh Marshall isn’t buying it:
For years the top generals in the IDF have agreed that Israel can handle withdrawing to the 1967 borders in military terms. But PM Netanyahu says that’s impossible because those borders are not defensible. It’s an amazing level of denial, intransigence and self-destructiveness on display today – something the pre-statehood and early statehood Zionist leadership was seldom so vulnerable to.
I agree with Gadi Taub who said recently that while peace is the ideal the highest priority for both peoples right now is partition. Netanyahu’s position makes that impossible. The 1967 lines are the only practical and politically conceivable basis for such a division – with mutually agreed upon swaps of territory along those lines. Netanyahu’s plan is simply to withdraw from areas of dense population within the West Bank. In fact, I think that overstates the case. I don’t think Netanyahu has a plan beyond holding his coalition together and himself in the prime ministership. The rejectionists’ “plan” is simply to hold on for as long as possible and play for time.
The man is a fool at so many levels. But there’s no denying that he speaks for a very large chunk of the Israeli electorate.
The Atlantic’s Goldberg is certainly capable of defending himself against such nonsense, but I’d note for context that he’s politically conservative, Jewish, and staunchly pro-Israel.
But then Goldberg brought this on himself with a number of pieces noting the reference to 1967 borders is neither new nor radical and that media coverage has been misleading and that Republican reactions have been overheated for no reason at all – and that pissed off the right. And then Netanyahu said that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004” which really made Goldberg angry:
So Netanyahu “expects” to hear this from the President of the United States? And if President Obama doesn’t walk back the speech, what will Netanyahu do? Will he cut off Israeli military aid to the U.S.? Will he cease to fight for the U.S. in the United Nations, and in the many international forums that treat Israel as a pariah?
I don’t like this word, “expect.” Even if there weren’t an imbalance between these two countries – Israel depends on the U.S. for its survival, while America, I imagine, would continue to exist even if Israel ceased to exist – I would find myself feeling resentful about the way Netanyahu speaks about our President. Netanyahu had an alternative, of course….
Instead he threw something of a hissy fit. It was not appropriate, and more to the point, it was not tactically wise… Netanyahu needs the support of President Obama in order to confront the greatest danger Israel has ever faced: the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran. And yet he seems to go out of his way to alienate the President. Why does he do this? It’s a mystery to me.
Putting aside the fact that I’m not accustomed to agreeing so much with Goldberg, the larger problem is that his sensible thinking on this is in too short a supply on the right. Over the last twenty-four hours, the response from Republicans and conservatives in general to Obama’s vision for the region has been reactionary and hysterical. The accusations against the U.S. leadership has been detached from reality in ways that suggest the right wasn’t even listening yesterday.
Indeed, for all the conservative apoplexy, it’s worth noting that the Anti-Defamation League had high praise for President Obama’s speech – and the ADL is led by Abe Foxman, a close Netanyahu ally.
What Foxman said is this – “I don’t see this as the president throwing Israel under the bus. He’s saying with ‘swaps.’ It’s not 1967 borders in the abstract. It’s not an edict. It’s a recommendation of a structure for negotiations.”
Or as Andrew Sullivan says – “Well: duh. But tell that to Roger Ailes.”
But on the right, Jennifer Rubin makes it clear who she believes should be the senior partner in the US-Israel relationship, and that would be Israel:
By now the White House, if it didn’t already, must realize that it poisoned the waters before a meeting with the Israeli prime minister and an appearance before AIPAC. What’s he going to do about it? Frankly, the problem is his. Netanyahu doesn’t have a negotiating partner, but he does have the opportunity before AIPAC and Congress to make his case and educate the public about the nature of the unity government to which Obama is handing off territory. But Obama has a firestorm he has to extinguish, and quickly. Good luck with that, Mr. President.
Of course Obama has handed off no territory to anyone, and specifically said in his speech the following:
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
And see Matt Duss on this matter:
Treating the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations in this way represents the overwhelming consensus of the international community, enshrined in multiple UN resolutions. That anyone should be confused or surprised about this probably goes to the success that Israeli leaders have had over the years in obscuring it, and the indulgence that American leaders have often shown toward those efforts.
And Alex Massie offers this:
I dare say Romney and Tim “Nice but Dim” Pawlenty think they must behave stupidly so they may meet domestic, conservative expectations and their views might change were they to find themselves living on Pennsylvania Avenue. Nevertheless, there are times when politics is canny and times when playing to the gallery leaves you looking like a dolt. This is one such time.
And Jonathan Chait offers this:
During the first quarter-century of Israel’s existence, the prospect of a massed conventional military invasion constituted the greatest threat to its existence. That’s no longer true. The greatest dangers today are the combination of demographic and political threats posed by the growing relative size of the Arab population west of the Jordan River, terrorism, and the loss of legitimacy posed by a continuing occupation and counter-terrorism policy in the West Bank and Gaza. Those dangers all dwarf the potential that armored columns of Arab armies will cut Israel in half. The tragedy is that huge swaths of the Israeli right and its sympathizers (both Jewish and Gentile) have failed to grasp this, and have placed it in danger of succumbing to the mortal new threat while guarding against the antiquated one.
And there’s Freddie DeBoer here:
The shamelessness and opportunism of conservatives in government and media would astound, if movement conservatism hadn’t extinguished any sparks of credibility years ago. They say that they are defending Israel while trying to perpetuate a status quo that isolates Israel internationally, dooms it through demographics to a small handful of equally noxious choices, and undermines the moral legitimacy of both the state and the righteous purpose of providing a safe home for Jews in the world. (How many movement conservatives, if they were honest and actually consistent in the application of their religious beliefs, would be forced to say that all Israeli Jews are condemned to hell?)
Well, there is that.
And Kevin Drum puts it nicely:
Bibi Netanyahu and Fox News have now made it crystal clear – over and over and over – that Israel will never return to its 1967 borders. The dissimulation here is really pretty staggering. They’re just hell-bent on giving everyone listening to them the impression that this is what President Obama has proposed.
He hasn’t, of course. No American president ever has. Full stop. It’s really pretty loathsome listening to these guys doing their best to pretend otherwise.
All Obama did was say the 1967 borders were always the starting point – they always have been, as everyone knows – so let’s try again, and make the adjustments that make sense. What’s the problem here?
Ah well, the Party of Jesus is once again defending Israel. And Obama hates Israel – their prime minster is right and our president is wrong.
Are there votes to be won with that stance? There are some. But since this problem will probably never be solved, most of this is posturing for the base. Yeah, yeah – Obama wants to wipe out Jesus Land. The base will eat that up. The rest of the nation, and not just the Jews, probably just find it all tiresome. And it is.