Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the last word Tuesday in his latest confrontation with President Barack Obama. It was no.
Unlike President Obama, whose Middle East policy speech spread confusion if not abject dismay among so many Israelis, Palestinians, and their supporters, Bibi could not have been clearer. His response to the principles of peace that Obama outlined in his speech last Thursday was no.
- Definitely, absolutely, defiantly no to a return to Israel's '67 borders – which President Obama had not, in fact, endorsed.
- No to negotiations with a Palestinian unity government as long as it includes a terrorist Hamas that remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.
- No to a division of Jerusalem, with which previous peace negotiators had flirted and which Palestinians see as a core demand.
- No to the idea of removing Israel's military presence along the Jordan Valley.
- And no to the idea of admitting Palestinian refugees to Israel as part of a peace accord – the Palestinian demand for a "right of return."
President Obama was no longer in Washington to receive the latest Bibi jab. His presidential caravan had already moved on to Europe where the White House is busy trying to reset relations with allies whose support he had initially undervalued and taken for granted.
But Congress loved Bibi's hard line. Republicans and Democrats leapt to their feet for ovations 29 times. (Israeli media say that Bibi got 56 standing ovations, which Bibi himself joked must have been tough for the elderly legislators.)
President Obama's Middle East speech was totally overshadowed. This was partly the president's fault. Prior to the speech he had sent mixed signals about what it would contain, with some aides telling reporters that there would be only a single sentence or two about the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.
The day before, he had alerted Bibi's office that he would propose the 67 plus land-swaps idea – not a new concept, but never before made explicit. Bibi's office had warned the White House and State Department that such a proposal would not be well received.
The portion of the president's speech devoted to the Arab Spring – its ostensible raison d'etre – was totally overshadowed by his almost throw-away references to the Arab-Israeli dispute – a shame, really, but totally the administration's own fault.
The White House had not even bothered to put the speech in context, explain what the president said, or meant to say in the sacrosanct "backgrounders" from unnamed senior administration officials before or after the speech.
The president himself was forced to clarify his remarks and intentions in a subsequent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee the following day. But like the poorly told joke that falls flat, if you have to explain it, it's not funny.
David Samuels, writing in Tablet, saw Obama's speech as a clever attempt to set aside the knottiest elements of the conflict – the fate of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees – to jump start talks on the slightly less contentious issue of borders. "Each side stands to gain something very real from an interim arrangement that they would be unlikely to gain from an actual peace deal," he writes. "The Palestinians would receive almost all of the territory they claim for an interim state—except Jerusalem—while holding on to their national dream of one day reclaiming all of Palestine from the Zionists. The Israelis, meanwhile, get a U.S.-sponsored end to the tar-baby of occupation and boatloads of shiny new weapons while holding on to major settlement blocs and an undivided Jerusalem."
But Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, called the president's actions "dumb." It was "dumb," he said, to pick a fight with an Israeli prime minister "with whom you don't have a relationship (but who you need if you want to get anywhere on the peace process)."
Bibi had the last word in this duel of speeches -- his rapturously received speech to Congress -- while Obama sipped beer in Ireland and signed the wrong date in the visitor's book during his visit to Westminster Abbey.
Being charitable, Obama may have been trying to head off a Palestinian push for a United Nations vote in September to recognize a Palestinian state. The life line he attempted to throw Bibi, however ineptly, has fallen short.
But Bibi knows a few things about the danger of relying on the U.S. Congress. He also appreciates the danger of further alienating America's commander-in-chief, especially one likely to be re-elected if the GOP cannot find a more exciting alternative or the economy does not weaken.
President Obama, too, is already in re-election mode, reluctant to antagonize his party's Jewish constituency.
So both men have found something on which they can agree: the need to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Both leaders called Iran's pursuit of such weapons a danger to Israel and to the world – a quest that must be stopped.
Let us hope that the prospects of making progress on this front are greater than unfreezing the Arab-Israeli peace process, though there is little reason to be optimistic about that either.