In Washington, Middle Eastern Sound and Fury Signifying… Nothing?
It’s been like dueling banjos in Washington this week. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu each got to say the same thing at length and at least twice. Last Thursday, the president gave his “Arab Spring” speech in which -- after a reportedly “furious phone call” between Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- he included the following line: “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.”
And a storm of commentary burst forth. Though this, it was said, had long been a privately agreed upon American presidential position, it had never before been stated publicly by a president (or perhaps any other top U.S. official). Netanyahu was reportedly incensed and on Friday could be found “hectoring” a polite but uncomfortable-looking Obama before the cameras in the Oval Office on the “indefensibility” of those 1967 borders. On Sunday, Obama nonetheless went before the wildly pro-Israeli lobbying group AIPAC and gave a speech restating his position on the 1967 borders, but qualifying it as well.
On Monday, to rapturous ovations, Netanyahu appeared before the same crew to restate his position on the indefensibility of those borders and on Tuesday before Congress -- in an invitation initiated by the House Republican leadership and clearly meant to embarrass the president -- he did it again to more standing ovations (29 of them).
It was a clash of titans over a difference so basic that... in November, the two governments were theoretically in accord on the very same point. Chris Nelson of the insider Washington newsletter The Nelson Report has just uncovered a “joint statement” agreed to and issued after a Netanyahu meeting with Secretary of State Clinton last November which said in part: “The Prime Minister and the Secretary agreed on the importance of continuing direct negotiations to achieve our goals. The Secretary reiterated that ‘the United States believes that through good faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.’"
No screaming. No complaints. No hectoring. Nothing. An old Miller Lite ad comes to mind: “Tastes Great. Less Filling.” Or perhaps the immortal lyrics given to Eliza Doolittle in the musical My Fair Lady: “Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words!... Is that all you blighters can do?”
All that sound and fury signifying, well, maybe nothing at all. As TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus points out in his post “Israel and the Palestinians Through the Looking Glass,” it’s not just what the president says, but what he does that counts. And when it comes to doing, with George Mitchell, Obama’s special Middle Eastern envoy (appointed on his second day in office) abruptly quitting -- whether in frustration, despair, or disgust we don’t know -- there’s no evidence that the president will do anything at all when it comes to those 1967 borders, not before the 2012 election anyway.
Let’s give David Bromwich, writing on the President’s Thursday speech for the New York Review of Books, the last word for now: “Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy -- a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions.”
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt