Benjamin Netanyahu's whole career as a diplomat and politician prepared him for that moment: the moment he, as the Jewish people's senior lobbyist, stands before the leader of the world and demands him to stop the approaching holocaust.
This is what happened at the meeting with Barack Obama on Friday. The prime minister came to the White House to lecture the U.S. president on 4,000 years of Jewish history, on persecution, expulsions, pogroms and the murder of millions, and to warn him against a peace based on illusions that could lead to another catastrophe. "History will not give the Jewish people another chance," said Netanyahu, probably imagining himself as a modern-day Moses or Herzl.
From what Netanyahu said in front of the cameras in the Oval Office, it seems he likens Obama to Neville Chamberlain, the leader who naively signed the Munich Agreement for the illusory peace that led to World War II and the Holocaust. Netanyahu presented the American president with his four No's: No to a retreat to the 1967 borders, no to a retreat from the Jordan River, no to negotiations with Hamas, and no to a return of refugees to the Jewish state. He didn't show any flexibility, compromise or openness, and described the Palestinians as enemies, not partners, in peace and good neighborliness.
Obama sat there and listened, with crossed legs and a concentrated look, barring an occasional scratch of the ear. The day before it was he who was chiding Netanyahu in his Middle East speech, where he attacked leaders captive in the shackles of yesterday and turning their backs on the opportunities of tomorrow, disagreeing with the prime minister about whether the Arab revolutions were dangerous. He likened Netanyahu to leaders in the Arab world, who wouldn't comprehend their people's desires until they were brought down, or had to give up their struggle for survival in front of the raging mobs.
Obama wants to establish an independent Palestine, in recognized borders and with territorial contiguity. He doesn't strive to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict or achieve an overall Middle East peace. He buried the Arab peace initiative, which he mentioned in his Cairo speech two years ago but ignored completely on Thursday. By doing so, he took away one of the Israeli left's most important banners.
The disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu isn't a personal quarrel. They clearly can't stand each other, but this is the smaller problem. What matters isn't the body language, but the values. Obama is a revolutionary who wants to give power to the masses. Netanyahu is a conservative, sticking to the status quo and fearing change.
To Netanyahu, Israel has a right to rule the territories and settle there as much as it likes, and at most it could throw some bones to the Palestinians to satisfy their supporters in the West, who, like Obama, simply don't understand what it's all about and blindly support a bunch of inciters and murderers.
To Obama, the Israeli occupation is an ongoing wrong that should be stopped. He's not ready for a situation in which the settlers in Psagot enjoy every right possible, while their Palestinian neighbors in Ramallah wait at a checkpoint, lacking self-determination. This is what he is fighting for.
Ariel Sharon started his relationship with George W. Bush with a similar confrontation, with the Czechoslovakia speech in which he warned the Americans against abandoning Israel to the threat of terrorism. He was attacked for this position, but Bush learned to respect him, and the two created a remarkable partnership.
The attempts by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak over the weekend to explain that the differences with Obama are not as great as they look show a similar attempt to calm things down. Sharon paid for it by evacuating the settlements in the Gaza Strip. The price Netanyahu will pay for repairing the relationship with America is yet to be seen. The only thing that's clear is that Palestinians who heard him speak about Jewish suffering will not expect any compromise and will turn their attention to Obama, who preaches to them about a popular uprising against the occupation.
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