Don’t listen to what Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama said at their buddy, buddy press conference Tuesday afternoon. Listen to what they didn’t say. Netanyahu volunteered that “I very much appreciate the President’s statement that he is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” The only problem: Obama didn’t say that. He said Iran must “cease the kinds of provocative behavior that has made it a threat to its neighbors and the international community.” That’s a whole lot vaguer, and it points to the crux of the dispute between the two men. Netanyahu wants Obama to do whatever it takes to prevent an Iranian nuke, including going to war. Obama doesn’t want to box himself into that corner. But putting Obama in a box is exactly Netanyahu was trying to do.
What kind of schmuck does Netanyahu think Obama is?
As for Netanyahu, he didn’t utter the word “Gaza.” Obama praised Israel’s easing of the blockade on Gaza Strip, but signaled that it wasn’t enough. “We believe,” the president declared, “that there is a way to make sure that the people of Gaza are able to prosper economically while Israel is able to maintain its legitimate security needs.” All well and good, except that Netanyahu doesn’t want the people of Gaza to prosper economically. For public relations reasons, he’s willing to allow more goods into the Palestinian enclave. But he’s still banning virtually all exports, which means that most Gazans can’t afford to buy the goods Israel is now allowing in. The truth is that Israel is still punishing the people of Gaza for having elected Hamas; it’s just doing in a more subtle, less cruel way.
• Martin Indyk: New Hope for Mideast Peace• Leslie H. Gelb: Fire the Mideast Policy Team!The second words Netanyahu didn’t mention: “Palestinian state.” Obama not only used the “S” word, he doubled it; referring to a “sovereign state” that the Palestinians “call their own.” Netanyahu, by contrast, talked about a “political settlement for peace” but not a state. In other words, he wouldn’t even go as far as he went last summer, under intense U.S. pressure, at Bar Ilan University.
Which raises a question: what kind of schmuck does Netanyahu think Obama is? He wants Obama to push the Palestinians into direct talks with Israel—talks the Palestinians are wary of because they fear that Netanyahu isn’t serious about negotiating a Palestinian state. The Netanyahu-Obama meeting was meant to help jumpstart those direct talks, and yet Netanyahu wouldn’t even utter the words “Palestinian state,” let alone outline what its borders should be. (Something Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done in detail). The bald reality is this: Netanyahu has zero interest in birthing a Palestinian state until Hamas is crushed and the Iranian regime is disarmed, if not overthrown. And he can’t seem to grasp that movement towards a Palestinian state might actually further those goals. If this is what Obama gets for playing nice, perhaps he should consider going back to tough love.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.