Of all the petty annoyances, misdemeanors and felonies of public life, there is none that Barack Obama detests more than to have his words twisted or oversimplified. It is a big part of his frustration with the media; it is a bigger part of his disdain for the talk-show wing of the Republican Party. And so it wasn't hard to imagine smoke jetting from the President's ears as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, willfully misinterpreted Obama's statement about the need to renegotiate Israel's borders in Obama's presence, in the Oval Office on May 20. The President had said that a two-state solution, which Netanyahu alleges to support, should be based on the pre-1967 borders, with mutually agreed-upon land swaps that would enable Israel to incorporate the vast majority of its dare I say illegal settlements into its territory while giving over equal amounts of Israeli turf to the Palestinians.
This is not a groundbreaking proposition. In the arcane world of Middle East peace negotiations, it is the equivalent of saying many Jews and Arabs eat hummus. Indeed, this exact formulation was used by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs after Hillary Clinton met with Netanyahu on Nov. 11. The swapping of borderlands was at the heart of Bill Clinton's nearly successful attempt to negotiate a peace deal in 2000. It was at the heart of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's nearly successful effort to negotiate peace with the Palestinians in 2008. There are maps circulating that show how such a border might look. The most plausible, one of three versions proposed by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is shown on this page.
But Netanyahu did an astonishing thing: he chose to ignore the part about the land swaps. He also chose to ignore some significant, and rather hard-line, statements of principle that Obama made in his May 19 speech on Middle East policy, reiterating that Israel shouldn't have to negotiate with terrorist groups like Hamas that deny its right to exist; that Israel's security requires a long-term military presence in the Jordan River Valley, eventually leading to a full withdrawal (but setting no timetable for that withdrawal); that any Palestinian state must be demilitarized; and that he would actively oppose any unilateral U.N. effort to declare Palestinian statehood. Instead, in a most condescending manner, Netanyahu chose to lecture the President on a position that he knew Obama hadn't taken a return to the "indefensible" pre-1967 borders.
Why on earth would Bibi Netanyahu choose to be so boorish and provocative? Because he can be. He has the U.S. Congress in his pocket, a fact made obvious by the applause tsunami that attended his speech to a joint session (and by the fact that an astonishing 68 Senators and 286 Representatives attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee banquet the night before he spoke). He also has a stronger argument this time around. The apparent reconciliation of the Palestinian factions allows Netanyahu to focus on Israel's greatest fear: when push comes to shove, the Palestinians have never really acknowledged Israel's right to exist. The one exception to that rule Yasser Arafat's signing of the Oslo accords seems hollow, given the subsequent Palestinian rejection of both the Clinton and Olmert offers. But Netanyahu's offensive also had an important tactical effect: Israel's continued, illegal construction of settlements on Palestinian lands an impediment to peace every bit as great as the Palestinian refusal to truly acknowledge Israel's existence took a distinct backseat during the week of dueling speeches. Netanyahu was playing offense so he didn't have to play defense.
Netanyahu knows American politics. The ease and eloquence of his address to Congress were stunning evidence of that. And so he must have been aware of the political impact of his cheesy gambit: he has now, overtly, tossed his support to the Republicans in 2012. Mitt Romney was able to say that Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus." Given his congressional support, Netanyahu may be able to get away with playing so bold a hand but it is inappropriate behavior for an American ally, and you can bet that Obama won't forget it.