05.20.11

Bibi's White House Tantrum

Netanyahu's rejection of Obama's Mideast speech underestimated the president's strength—and could hasten the Israeli leader's political demise.

Netanyahu's rejection of Obama's Mideast speech underestimated the president's strength—and could hasten the Israeli leader's political demise. Plus, reactions from Israel, Palestinians, and the Arab League.

Bibi Netanyahu could have reacted any number of ways to Barack Obama’s mention of the “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Let’s say, actually, four ways—embrace, circumspection, suspicion, tantrum. That he chose the last—saying immediately after the Obama speech that he “expects” to hear Obama in essence renounce what he’d just said before the entire world!—tells us a lot about the man’s shortcomings and (lack of) political instinct. All political is local, and Netanyahu undoubtedly scored points with his Likud base back home. But he has a base here in America too, and I think he misjudged that base badly.

One senses here a big public-relations, and possibly public-opinion, shift from two years ago. Right after he took office in 2009, Obama pushed Israel too hard on settlements, thinking that he had more political capital on the issue than he had. He got slapped down, by Netanyahu and AIPAC and members of Congress from both parties. At the same time, Syria was rebuffing administration overtures, and the new president was learning the hard way that the Middle East wasn’t the staff of the Harvard Law Review, and it wouldn’t quite so pliably prostrate itself to his will and aura.

But now, is it Obama who’s going to suffer the PR blow? Something tells me that this time, the pressure will mount more on Bibi than Barack. His behavior these last 48 hours has verged on, if not been, petulant. A foreign leader (no less one of a state whose existence depends on the United States) isn’t supposed to talk like that to a president. Add to the bargain: Obama’s a stronger president now on foreign affairs than he was in 2009, partly because of the bin Laden coup and partly because the speech was generally well received across the American political spectrum. The criticisms of Obama on the borders statement have been entirely partisan, led by Republican presidential candidates. That has had the effect of cheapening the criticism of Obama and making it more dismissible: Do Americans, and Israelis and Palestinians, really care what Tim Pawlenty thinks about the situation? The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, never shy about criticizing the administration on these matters, came out Friday to The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and judged the speech a defense of Israel: “The speech indicated to me that this administration has come a long way in better understanding and appreciating the difficulties facing both parties, but especially Israel in trying to make peace with the Palestinians.” This may be a sign that the usual cordon won’t hold around Bibi this time. Oh, he’ll receive a thunderous welcome from Congress Tuesday, mostly from Republicans who want to embarrass Obama by backing the prime minister. But the applause will only mask temporarily what everyone knows—that he is in total denial about the future.

Israel, of course, has legitimate security concerns, especially in light of the recent Fatah-Hamas entente. And there’s nothing, really, to prevent Netanyahu from running out the clock if that’s what he wants to do. But things have changed. Two years ago, politically speaking, time was on his side. Now it’s against him. Having thrown this tantrum, it seems unlikely that he can come back in two weeks, or two months, or a year, and say gee, the ’67 borders with swaps is actually a good idea after all. It seems like the peace process will have to wait for a new prime minister. And he may have hastened that day, too.

Note: This story has been updated.

Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.