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Obama to Netanyahu: You Are Smart and Strong Enough to Do What I Want

by Shmuel Rosner

March 3, 2014 | 3:19 am

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem February 2, 2014. Photo by Reuters/Gali Tibbon/Pool

Nitpicking about other journalist’s interviews isn’t exactly a noble enterprise, but since Jeffrey Goldberg is the one who gets the Obama quotes on Israel, we have little choice but to nibble on his recent Bloomberg interview to dissect the president’s words. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, President Barack Obama spoke to Goldberg ahead of his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu on Monday).

So, what did Obama say? For the purpose of this column, I’m only referring to the part of the interview that’s about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; I will examine other parts concerning Syria and Iran at Rosner’s Domain (on the Web at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain). 

So, Obama wants Netanyahu to accept the opportunity presented to him by Secretary Kerry — this is hardly a surprise. In fact, that Obama is suddenly so eager to be seen as a partner to Kerry’s endeavor (yesterday The New York Times reported that the President is going to pressure Netanyahu; today there’s Goldberg’s interview) tells me two things. No. 1, Kerry wants the world to know that he has the backing of Obama; and No. 2, Obama wants some of the credit for Kerry’s paper.

The talk of presidential pressure is not really necessary, as Netanyahu seems determined — and has seemed determined for quite a while now — to accept the Kerry formulation (with reservations). So Obama is really banging on a door that is already open, just to let the guests see that he, too, has arrived.

The most disturbing aspect of Obama’s words — from an Israeli perspective — is the part about Israel’s possible isolation if the peace process fails to provide results. Kerry was blunter about this a month ago, as he erred in specifically threatening Israel with a boycott. Obama is wiser, and more careful, but the threat is similar. 

“If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama said. This means, don’t count on the U.S. to be able to prevent the rest of the world from isolating Israel. That’s an assessment, but it is also a warning. The U.S. can have great influence on the rest of the world when it is up to the task; yet when the approach is, well, I’m not sure there’s much we can do about this, the message to the world is we aren’t going to make a huge effort here. And this is an open invitation to the rest of the world to isolate Israel.

Another somewhat disturbing issue, at least from Netanyahu’s standpoint, is the president’s tendency to put the burden mostly on Israel’s shoulders. “For all that we’ve seen over the last several decades, all the mistrust that’s been built up, the Palestinians would still prefer peace. They would still prefer a country of their own that allows them to find a job, send their kids to school, travel overseas, go back and forth to work without feeling as if they are restricted or constrained as a people. And they recognize that Israel is not going anywhere. So I actually think that the voices for peace within the Palestinian community will be stronger with a framework agreement and that Abu Mazen’s position will be strengthened with a framework for negotiations.” 

So the President has trust in the Palestinians’ desire for peace, and wants Netanyahu to “seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can.” The President gives Netanyahu many compliments during this interview: He is smart, a communicator, strong, able — all to make him the one who has the responsibility to make the necessary adjustments. 

A note of caution: Obama answered the questions he was asked, and there wasn’t one about the responsibility that lies with Abbas — maybe in the next interview, before Abbas’ visit, Obama might have similar words of caution for him. But judging by this interview alone, Obama seems to expect more from Israel’s prime minister than from the Palestinian president.

For up-to-date coverage of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley this week, visit jewishjournal.com.

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