Some of us are old enough to remember Blue Laws – stores would be closed on Sundays, as Sunday was the day of rest, as it did say that in the Bible. It was the Sabbath – and this has to do with the Biblical account of the seventh day of Creation (Genesis 2:2-3) – God rested and you should too. And of course observation and remembrance of Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments – and not observing Sabbath, if you want to be picky, really must be punished, and punished by death (Exodus 31:15). But of course if you go to temple on Friday evening and not to church on Sunday morning, American Blue Laws, about Sundays, seem wrong. In Hebrew Scriptures were talking about from sixth-day evening to seventh-day evening (Nehemiah 13:19 and Leviticus 23:32) – and you can calculate that to start on Friday evening. These things get tricky.
But the Blue Laws did not fade away because of disputes regarding scriptural interpretation. It wasn’t the Jews versus the Christians. And it wasn’t a matter of piety. It’s just that having America close up shop for one day out of every seven wasn’t terribly good for the economy. And hard-working Americans can never find enough time on their precious two-day weekends to get everything done around the house. Home Depot had better be open on Sunday. And if the kid needs something odd for that school project due Monday morning, well Staples had better be open too. No one is going to be put to death for any of that, and America does work best as a 24/7 enterprise. If you want to observe the Sabbath strictly, and do nothing at all, that’s fine – but that’s your business, no one else’s. And the only thing left of Blue Laws is, here and there, prohibitions on selling alcohol on Sunday, although in most of those places you can go to the corner bar and drink yourself silly – you just cannot go to a liquor store or the supermarket and buy a big bottle of cheap scotch and lug it home. But even that is rare now. The secular won – we are a secular nation.
But Sunday is usually a slow news day. There are the Sunday morning panel shows – Meet the Press (NBC) and Face the Nation (CBS) and This Week (ABC) – and CNN and Fox News run their once a week “perspective” shows. But MSNBC just bags it and runs hour after hour of their prepackaged life-in-prison documentaries – their news folks all stay home on Sundays, napping or mowing the lawn. That’s probably not piety. Not much news happens on Sundays, and people are out and about doing things, not watching an all-news channel. And after all, news junkies and policy wonks represent a niche market, really. There’s no point in spending a lot of money producing a chat show for twenty-seven viewers.
But real life never stops, and on Sunday, May 22, the president, who many on the far right consider not a Christian and certainly not an American, went and violated that Sabbath – he gave a major speech, but he gave it to the Friday-evening-at-the-temple crowd. So he respected one Sabbath and violated the other, with this:
President Obama struck back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a speech to a pro-Israel lobbying group on Sunday, defending his stance that talks over a Palestinian state should be focused on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, along with negotiated land swaps, and challenging Israel to “make the hard choices” necessary to bring about a stable peace.
Mr. Obama, speaking before a conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, offered familiar assurances that the United States’ commitment to Israel’s long-term security was “ironclad.” But citing the rising political upheaval near Israel’s borders, he presented his peace plan as the best chance Israel has to avoid growing isolation.
“We cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace,” Mr. Obama said. The world, he said, “is moving too fast.”
He doubled down on what he had previously said. It’s time for a two-state solution to this whole business – enough with the putzing around, although he didn’t resort to Yiddish. He had said, a few days earlier, that negotiations should use Israel’s 1967 borders as a starting point – nothing really new.
As Mr. Obama himself pointed out, his theme in the speech last Thursday was not extraordinary. American presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have consistently instructed their foreign policy aides to pursue an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians using the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps, as a basis for talks.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, in fact, made such a proposal to the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2008, as the two sides rushed to complete a peace deal before Mr. Bush and Mr. Olmert left office.
He was just a bit blunt about it:
But the 1967 border issue has always been privately understood, not spoken publicly, and certainly not publicly endorsed by a sitting American president.
When Mr. Obama did so last Thursday, he unleashed a furious response from Mr. Netanyahu. The prime minister’s office put out a statement in advance of his meeting with Mr. Obama the next day in which Mr. Netanyahu said he expected to hear certain assurances from the president.
Obama did offer words of assurance, sort of:
He repeated what the Israeli prime minister so objected to – the reference to pre-1967 borders – and challenged those who he said had “misrepresented” his position. But, he said, “let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means.” His view, he said, is that “the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”
“It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation,” he continued. “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”
He seemed fed up with all the bullshit, as Netanyahu, in his anger, had conveniently ignored the “mutually agreed swaps” part of his proposal. And Netanyahu did then tone it down a bit – “I share the president’s desire to advance peace, and I appreciate his efforts in the past and the present to achieve it.”
Here is the White House transcript – President Barack Obama’s remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference – if you want the details. Obama was in no mood to take crap from Netanyahu and the American right. Someone had to be the adult in the room, and in fact, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo said it was a proud day for Obama:
Obliquely and with respect to his audience, in his speech to AIPAC today, President Obama also responded to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated lies about what President Obama said only the day before.
Just as no man is an island, no country can be either. On its present course Israel is on its way to becoming a pariah state, a status in which it cannot indefinitely or even perhaps long survive. Neither the fact that Israel faces a profound cultural animosity among the region’s Arab populations nor the bad faith that often greets its actions, nor even the anti-Semitism that is sometimes beneath the animus, changes this essential fact. The make-up of the 21st century world is simply not compatible with a perpetual military occupation of another people, especially one that crosses a boundary of ethnicity and religion. Only the willfully oblivious can’t see that.
Ah but the willfully oblivious are, as they say, legion these days, as Marshall acknowledges:
I’ve had so many conversations with American and Israeli hardliners who say essentially, why give up this land as long as the Palestinians won’t do this or that thing? Such folly. As though the settlements of the West Bank were a thing of great value as opposed to a lethal threat. Like you insist on keeping the knife in your belly as opposed to removing it at the first opportunity because someone else you’re negotiating with won’t do what you want.
But when you’re stuck, you’re stuck:
Netanyahu believes that US power is forever and that the US political consensus to support Israel in almost any policy choice it makes will never change. So he can simply ignore the currents of history and international affairs and thumb his nose at every other country in the world. But neither is true.
Most of Israel’s leaders and all the giants of early Zionism – who are demeaned even to be compared to Netanyahu – realized this. They mixed a lot of pragmatism with their improbable idealism.
The man cannot see that the occupation itself represents the true existential threat to Israel:
Most who don’t have a profound and over-riding ideological commitment to maintaining a state in all of historic Palestine get this. That’s why even someone like Tzipi Livni, a former member of the Likud and someone from a Revisionist family, realized that partition is the only viable path forward.
For me this is the key issue. Justice, peace … you don’t even need to get to those agenda items. The simple reality is that Israel needs partition for its survival, more really than any of the other parties to the controversy.
And Rick Hertzberg offers this:
The President wants to make peace and presumably knows that it won’t happen without a huge and politically brutal American effort. Such an effort would probably provoke the Israel lobby (a better name for which would be the Likud lobby) into an all-out fight against his reelection. Netanyahu may not be personally and psychologically capable of making the necessary concessions. In any case he couldn’t make them without bringing down his own government, which relies on the extreme revanchist right for its survival, and forming a new coalition with opposition parties like the center-left/center-right Kadima. The rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, though probably a precondition for an eventual settlement, makes it harder for the Palestinian side to make their own necessary concessions, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, this week’s mass marches along the borders suggest that the Arab Spring has finally come knocking at Israel’s door.
And Andrew Sullivan sees that too:
It has indeed been a remarkable week… one that took me by surprise. I saw nothing that new in the president’s speech on Israel-Palestine – just a minimal request directed to both sides based on a settlement everyone knows is the only equitable one, and that has been the cornerstone of US policy for a very long time. But the rank hysteria that immediately sprang from Jerusalem and quickly enveloped the far-right-wing-media-industrial-complex, revealed far more plainly than before that the gulf between Israel and the rest of the world is simply vast.
It appears that the maximum Netanyahu would allow in any two state solution are some kind of autonomous Bantustans in the West Bank, surrounded by Israeli military and security forces and buffered at the Jordan border with IDF troops. Forget about Jerusalem and the right of return. If this is Israel’s bottom line, there will be no peace, and there should be no peace, because of the rank injustice of this non-solution. More to the point, Netanyahu is no longer on the Israeli fringe.
And this leads to no good at all:
What strikes me is the visceral and emotional power behind the AIPAC line, displayed in Netanyahu’s contemptuous, disgraceful, desperate public dressing down of the American president in the White House. Just observe the tone of Netanyahu’s voice, and the Cheney-like determination to impose his will on the world, regardless of anyone else, and certainly without the slightest concern for his ally’s wider foreign policy and security needs. It seems clear to me that he believes that an American president, backed by the Quartet, must simply bow toward Israel’s own needs, as he perceives them, rather than the other way round.
Has Netanyahu ever asked, one wonders, what he could actually do to help Obama, president of Israel’s oldest, and strongest ally in an era of enormous social and political change? That, it seems, is not how this alliance works – moreover, an alliance in which one party is acting in direct conflict with the needs and goals of the other is an unstable one. Yes, there are unshakeable, powerful bonds between the two countries, and rightly so. But emotional bonds are not enough if, in the end, core national interests collide – and no compromise is possible.
Sullivan juts doesn’t see the logic here:
Netanyahu’s current position means that the US is supposed to sacrifice its broader goals of reconciliation with an emergent democratic Arab world, potentially jeopardize its relations with a democratic Egypt, isolate itself from every other ally, and identify the US permanently with a state that, in its current configuration and with its current behavior, deepens and inflames the global conflict with Jihadist Islam. Netanyahu, in other words, wants the US to clasp itself to Israel’s total distrust of every Arab state and population in an era where it is vital for the US to do exactly the opposite.
And he adds that it is simply absurd not to notice Obama’s even-handedness:
It’s clear he won’t legitimize Hamas until Hamas legitimizes itself by acknowledging Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and dropping its virulent, violent anti-Semitism. He rebuked Abbas for going the UN route. Like any US president, he is committed to Israel’s security and is, indeed, vital to it. But all he asks is a good faith attempt by the Israelis to acknowledge that their future state has to be based on the 1967 lines with land swaps. Indefensible? Says who? With a regional monopoly of over a hundred nuclear warheads and the best intelligence and military in its neighborhood, and a vibrant economy, Israel is not vulnerable. And in so far as it may be vulnerable – to Iran’s nuclear gambit – its government is alienating the indispensable ally in this deserved quest for security. This is panic and paranoia, not reason and self-interest.
So, Sullivan concludes, no one seems to appreciate Obama’s political courage in all this:
Obama seems to understand that an equitable two-state solution is a key crucible for the change he is seeking with respect to the Muslim world, the minimum necessary to advance US interests in the region and against Jihadism abroad. With each month in office, he has pursued this, through humiliation after humiliation from the Israelis, who are openly trying to lobby the press, media, political parties and Congress to isolate this president and destroy his vision for peace and the historic and generational potential his presidency still promises. To achieve this, he has to face down the apocalyptic Christianist right, the entire FNC-RNC media machine, a sizable chunk of his party’s financial base, and the US Congress. And yet on he pushes – civilly, rationally, patiently.
And Sullivan sees here “a titanic struggle between fear and hope.”
What has changed since Gaza is the context. The Arab Spring has, in my view, made fear more dangerous and hope more necessary. The democratic spring – from Tehran to Tunis – is the opposite force to the logic of the dead-end Gaza war, as to the mindset of Assad and Qaddafi.
If Israelis refuse to rise to this occasion, however fraught with risk, then they will cede moral authority, even more than they already have, to those they are still seeking to control. And if they persist in this, they risk bringing about the very existential conflict they say they fear so much. It is the task of a true ally to tell this truth. …
And he cites a note from an Israeli citizen:
You should know that many Israelis actually do understand that we should go back to 67 borders, but the environment here is so toxic – not unlike what the far right has done in America – that you just can’t say anything out loud or you’ll be denounce as almost Anti-Semitic. What’s going on here is awful. Bibi is taking us straight to hell. It’s amazing to think that if Olmert was still in charge, he would have cut a deal with Obama a year ago. What a waste to finally have an American president who is so sincere, serious and decent, at a time when there’s no leader, no vision and no hope in Israel.
Well, there’s a lot of that going around. But Sullivan sees a new world here:
I do think that a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine is a legitimate state interest. I didn’t a few years ago. I thought that the whole morass was so fucked up we’d be better off ignoring it.
Two things changed my mind: the realization after 9/11 and the Iraq war that we cannot readjust our relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds by military force alone, that the legacy of the Bush administration was potentially catastrophic without a major re-set, and that Obama’s presidency and then the Green Revolution and Arab Spring have given the US a uniquely propitious moment to advance our interests across the globe, defang Jihadism and make strategic advances in the war on terror. The alternative is one Gaza war or Abu Ghraib after another.
And this is a second reason for urgent change. The corruption of permanent warfare, the damage it does to our moral standards, the polarizing effect it has everywhere, the dangers it poses to our constitution: these have persuaded me that we really do have to make a change – as an urgent matter of national self-interest. I see Obama as a providential vehicle for that change – which is why I want him so desperately to persevere and why I am furious at Netanyahu’s Cheney-like contempt for him.
And whether it is fully justified or not, Israel’s refusal to agree with a real, contiguous, independent, demilitarized Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem gets in the way. It is the concrete wall between our being able to defuse and defeat Jihadism and our being at its permanent mercy. Sticking to this alliance as doggedly as we have in the past is not helping us and not helping Israel. Obama has been brave in stating this fact, something that is integral to his global promise. He is not just representing the US he is representing a global generation that will not tolerate this brutalizing kind of dead-end neo-colonialism any longer.
It may well be that the Palestinians will squander yet another golden opportunity. In fact, that seems more than likely. But it is in our core national interest to keep the opportunity alive. It seems to me that the reason Netanyahu is so recalcitrant is that he is afraid that he might get yes for an answer from the Palestinians this time. Hence his desperate attempt to outlast Obama and this window of hope.
And Jeffrey Goldberg notes that Benjamin Netanyahu’s odd approach to the US-Israel relationship is inconsistent with the idea that he also lives in terror of the Iranian nuclear weapons program:
Like many of you, I watched the Prime Minister of Israel publicly lecture the President of the United States on Jewish history with a mixture of shock, amusement and bewilderment. (From the expression on the President’s face, I would assume he was mostly feeling annoyance.)
It wasn’t the content of Netanyahu’s lecture that I found so shocking – Jews, over a few thousand years, have earned a great deal of our paranoia – but that he chose to hector the American president, an American president who, the day before, gave Netanyahu two enormous gifts – a denunciation of the radical Islamist terror group Hamas, and a promise to fight unilateral Palestinian efforts to seek United Nations recognition as an independent state – in public, in the White House, in a tone that suggested he thought he was speaking to an ignoramus.
And Goldberg notes that this is kind of nuts:
For decades, Israel has been a bipartisan cause on Capitol Hill. It will remain so for a while, but Netanyahu is, through his pedantic and pinched behavior, helping to weaken Israel’s standing among Democrats. Why is this so important? Because Israel has no friends left in the world except for the United States (and in fairer weather, Canada, Australia and Germany). As it moves toward a confrontation with Iran, it needs wall-to-wall support in America. You would think that Netanyahu, who is sincere in his oft-stated belief that Iran poses quite possibly the greatest danger Israel has ever faced, would be working harder than he is to ensure Democratic, and presidential, support, for this cause.
But something else is going on, as Matthew Yglesias sees it:
And you can forget Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in this analysis. It’s no secret that the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf are objectively aligned with Israel on the Iran question. Nor is it a secret that said governments can’t afford to be publicly seen as lining up with Israel as long as the Palestinian issue is an open sore. Substantial concessions to the Palestinians as part of an effort to build as broad as possible a coalition against Iran seem like a no-brainer.
But it’s not. Everyone is dug in. No one will budge. And Obama takes his Sunday, which should be his day of rest, and tries to get everyone involved to stop posturing for glory, and for reelection – on both sides of the Atlantic – and just open up discussions on solving a problem that will be the ruin of us all. But of course that’s impossible, perhaps. But you do have to try, even on a Sunday.
And what did you do with your Sunday?