WASHINGTON - The last few days in the U.S. capital showcased all the stages of what has become a familiar and unfortunate pattern in U.S.-Israeli relations over the last two and a half years: crisis, fence-mending and relief - only to start all over again during the next visit by top officials to either Washington or Jerusalem.
On Sunday, following the weekend's tense exchange of critical remarks, U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed his administration's commitment to Israel's security, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who watched Obama's speech to the AIPAC conference from Blair House, issued a statement pledging to work with the president to find a way to resume peace talks with the Palestinians. Sigh of relief, catharsis.
Obama didn't retract what he said; he just added more positive elements to the content of his lengthy Middle East policy speech last Thursday. It was quite a rare scene: the leader of the free world working additional hours as a pundit, providing analysis and commentary on his own speech.
Netanyahu accepted the ladder and climbed down from the tree: This time, he chose to stress the positive messages in the president's speech. The way was thus cleared for the Israeli prime minister's speech to Congress today, which will most likely be greeted with the usual warmth and no unpleasant surprises.
As Daniel Levy, director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, put it, "Netanyahu will receive a rousing ovation (sadly, that would probably be the case if Netanyahu read out the phone book, in Hebrew ). But he is unlikely to offer anything of substance to change the trajectory of developments in the coming months."
Obama won't be there to listen to Netanyahu's speech: He will be in the middle of his visit to Europe. But at least this time, Netanyahu will stay in Blair House, an official accommodation for White House guests, until the end of his visit. That will prevent reporters from focusing on yet another mini-drama in the Obama-Netanyahu personal relationship in the absence of more substantive moves.
The president didn't present any new peace initiative, but he has not necessarily abandoned peace efforts. On his European trip, he might well raise the issue of the Palestinian reconciliation pact between Hamas and Fatah, and efforts to get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back to the table, with his European partners.
The average play contains five acts, and after the fifth meeting between the American and Israeli leaders, it seemed the personal-relations drama had ended with Obama's abandonment of the narrative that the peace process depended on a settlement freeze. But this week, it was extended into act seven: Much precious time in Washington before, during and after the two leaders' seventh meeting was wasted yet again.
It's not that relations between the two countries depend totally on the lack of chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu. Nor is Netanyahu unaware of the consequences of recognition of a Palestinian state for the settlements, for Israel and maybe even for the Israeli economy - his pride and joy.
But once again, the impression was that the focus was totally skewed. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis see each other as valid players. Instead, they play against the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, preferring to ignore the fact that they don't live alongside Texans or Argentines, but each other.
And over at AIPAC...
As usual at the AIPAC conference, there were many smart people who gnashed their teeth over fruitless years of trying to help Israel in the way they deemed most effective: helping it to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, or at least to analyze it from every possible angle. There were discussions about the situation on college campuses, Iran and Hezbollah, about whether Turkey is lost to Israel and how the Syrian mess will end, where the Arab revolutions are headed and what the Palestinian leadership is up to.
But while some Jewish Democrats concluded that the applause for Obama at AIPAC meant even staunch pro-Israel supporters understand that the status quo is not sustainable, it should be noted that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got enthusiastic applause later that day for essentially rebuffing some of Obama's most recognizable lines, though without mentioning him explicitly. Many conference participants told Haaretz that they were skeptical about the president's message, but wanted to show him respect in order to preserve governmental cooperation with the Jewish community and Israel.
With the 2012 election campaign looming, the question of some Jewish donors' disappointment with Obama's Middle East policy was a topic of lively discussion in the hallways of the convention center in Washington. But as one major Jewish fund-raiser pointed out to Haaretz, "There might be some concerns for donors, but an incumbent will raise lots of money, from the Jewish community or not, because people want a place near the table. Probably some donors will need us to do some talking, but it was done also in 2008. This speech, I think, was very helpful."
While most Democrats and centrists were quick to praise Obama's second speech, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, thought both speeches "had a flaw - the '67 marker."
"President Obama tried to correct the message," said Foxman, who participated in Netanyahu's meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders Sunday evening. "But it's still a genie out of the bottle. The Palestinians now have it in their pocket, and if they make it a precondition for talks, it's a nonstarter. Obama heard the prime minister and tried to put it into perspective, but the Palestinian still have it and won't let it go. If the U.S. wants to be a facilitator, it needs Israel's trust, and introducing these 1967 lines undermined this trust."
Outside the convention center, where participants in the "Move Over AIPAC" conference had been holding creative protests since early morning, people clearly disagreed with Foxman, and thought that if anything, Obama said too little, too late. Among the dolls of Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Speaker of the House John Boehner and the "U.S. boat to Gaza" were two decorated booths inviting AIPAC conference participants to talk about it.
But as far as I could see, none of the 10,000 delegates was eager to engage in a dialogue with the self-described pacifists - or, as they were defined inside the convention center, the anti-Israel organizations. And with performances such as a woman pretending to be a pregnant Palestinian thrown violently back by "Israeli soldiers" with toy rifles at a mock checkpoint, it wasn't too surprising.
The young, Jewish, left-wing activists made one attempt to breach this disregard of their protest: They entered the lobby and started dancing and singing the following song to the tune of "Hava Nagila":
"AIPAC is meeting / We have a greeting / Cuz they're not speaking / For these young Jews.
Justice is dying / AIPAC is lying / Lies we're not buying / Hi ne ni..
AIPAC don't speak for me / Bluewashing's not my cup of tea / Palestine must be free / Occupation's heresy!
Buying Congress with their cash / All opposing Jews they bash / AIPAC wants peace to crash / Hi ne ni."
Soon enough they were taken out of the building. But the incident was quite telling as to the state of Israel-related discourse in the U.S. Jewish community. There are many forums in which people sing "Hatikva," the Israeli national anthem, and bash those criticizing Israel as self-hating Jews, detached from their roots and unwanted with their "harmful approach." And there are other forums where liberal Jews might cheer calls to "put an end to the apartheid state."
When American Jewish pro-Israel activists, especially on the right, realize that people in Israel discuss these challenges openly and vigorously, and that there is room for criticism - and when left-wing activists realize that attacking people who have already developed a sort of siege mentality, and who are disappointed at being singled out disproportionally in international forums, won't make them more open for concessions - perhaps then, the "dialogue booth" will finally host some guests willing to talk about it.
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