Obama at Canossa

Like King Henry IV in 1077, who asked forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII at the Canossa fortress in Tuscany, Obama at the AIPAC conference surrendered to pressure from Netanyahu and the Jewish lobby.


It was not to the AIPAC conference that U.S. President Barack Obama went to deliver his speech on Sunday, but to Canossa. Like King Henry IV in 1077, who asked forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII at the Canossa fortress in Tuscany, Obama at the AIPAC conference surrendered to pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish lobby.

In 1077, the debate centered on investiture - in other words, the right to appoint clerics to church offices. In 2011, the debate is about the status of the June 4, 1967 lines and the right to influence the border between Israel and the future Palestinian state.

On the face of it, there were almost no differences between Obama's first speech, in the State Department, and his second speech, before over 10,000 Jews. Ostensibly, Obama displayed courage: In the second forum, he again explained his belief that the 1967 lines are the basis for negotiations over borders.

But the need to explain and clarify what may not have been properly understood in the first speech, which led to a public reprimand by Netanyahu, seemed almost like an apology. Even the claim that he didn't say anything new, but was merely reiterating the viewpoint of his predecessors, was like saying: Don't worry, I won't say anything new and I won't contribute anything.

Obama also displayed impressive verbal acrobatics when he told the AIPAC audience - presumably without changing his viewpoint - that there would be no return to the 1967 lines, thereby garnering applause and political support in his battle for survival in November 2012.

Obama's second speech was very Zionistic. In effect he accepted all of Netanyahu's positions, from acknowledging Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people through demanding that Hamas accept the Quartet's conditions as a precondition for negotiations to reiterating most of the contents of President George W. Bush's letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, which made it clear that the new demographic reality in the territories will affect the borders of the Palestinian state.

What caused President Obama, who is so far removed from Netanyahu both personally and ideologically, to take such a big step toward him? What caused Obama to go to Canossa?

There are several possible answers to this important question. First, Obama mainly seems to understand the language of power, in this case the undiplomatic criticism leveled at him by Netanyahu and others over his first speech.

In his conduct toward the changing Middle East, Obama similarly seems to be influenced more by power than morality. He is forgiving toward strong, cruel rulers like Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; in spite of their brutal behavior toward their own people, he has not yet demanded that they be removed from power - a demand that he directed with record speed at his weaker and less brutal ally, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Second, Obama seems to be increasingly preoccupied with his political survival, and the danger of losing the Jewish vote and Jewish financial support in the 2012 election campaign is increasingly guiding his behavior.

On the face of it, Obama's speech was full of vision and loyalty to the peace process and the establishment of a Palestinian state. But in practice, he is making these goals virtually unachievable, both by opposing a Palestinian initiative in the United Nations in September and by understanding that it will be difficult for Israel to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. In the past, the internal Palestinian split served as an excuse for refraining from negotiations; now, Palestinian unity is the excuse. Thus in spite of the glittering, hopeful rhetoric, Obama's speech is a recipe for stagnation.

What caused King Henry IV to go to Canossa, barefoot and in simple peasant's clothing, was an attempt to ensure the continuation of his reign, even at the price of a reduction in his influence and power. That is also what brought Obama to the AIPAC conference. After years of tension, Netanyahu and Obama have finally reached an unusual agreement: Their battle for political survival is more important than the fate of the Middle East.