Netanyahu threw a nutty. Before he departed Israel for Washington, his office issued a statement saying that the “Prime Minister expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004 … commitments [that] relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines.” The statement was extraordinary on multiple levels: in its sheer presumptuousness (“expects”?); in its willful misreading of Obama’s words (ignoring the part about land swaps); and in its total neglect of the many hard-line pro-Israel positions the president had advanced, including a scornful rejection of the Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N., sharp criticism of Israel-denying Hamas, skeptical questioning of its new alliance with Israel-accepting Fatah, and harsh condemnation of Iran and Syria.
The next day, Netanyahu delivered his on-camera lecture to Obama. What enraged the president and his team wasn’t the impudence on display; they could live with that. It was the dishonesty at the heart of the thing. “I’ve been in more than one meeting with Bibi where he used the same language to describe the outlines of a deal,” one official says. “It’s outrageous—attacking the president for something he didn’t say, claiming he was putting Israel’s security at risk for stating out loud a position Bibi himself holds privately.”
But Netanyahu knew he could get away with it—so staunch and absolute is the bipartisan support he commands in the U.S. Garishly illuminating the point, on the night before his speech to Congress, the prime minister attended the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, where he was the headline speaker at the event’s gala banquet. Before he took the stage, three announcers, amid flashing spotlights and in the style of the introductions at an NBA All-Star game, read the names of every prominent person in the room, including 67 senators, 286 House members, and dozens of administration and Israeli officials, foreign dignitaries, and student leaders. (The roll call took half an hour.) When Harry Reid spoke, he obliquely but unambiguously chastised Obama for endorsing the use of the 1967 lines as the basis for a peace deal: “No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building, or about anything else.” The ensuing ovation was deafening—but a mere whisper compared with the thunderous waves of applause that poured over Netanyahu.
The next day came his speech to Congress, in which he spelled out demands that were maximal by any measure: recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for negotiations, a refusal to talk if Hamas is part of the Palestinian side, an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and absolutely no right of return for Palestinian refugees. Taken as a whole, his whirlwind Washington visit provided a strong dose of clarity: With Barak having moved his newly formed Independence Party into Netanyahu’s governing coalition, its new stability has reduced to near zero the incentives for him to take the risks required for peace.
In the eyes of some observers, Netanyahu’s performance over those days suggested something else: that he was taking sides in the 2012 race. As Time’s Joe Klein sharply noted, Netanyahu “has now, overtly, tossed his support to the Republicans.” With cover from Bibi, Mitt Romney pronounced that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus.” Michele Bachmann tweeted that his “call for 1967 borders will cause chaos, division & more aggression in Middle East and put Israel at further risk.” Tim Pawlenty (remember him?) called Obama’s policy “a disaster waiting to happen.” And Ron Paul declared, “Unlike this president, I do not believe it is our place to dictate to Israel how to run her affairs.”
So much pandering, so little time! Republicans sucking up to Israel, and by extension Jewish voters, is nothing new; and in the past, it has come to naught. Might this election be different? Some political professionals think so. The perception of Obama as harboring antipathy to Israel, they argue, makes 2012 a ripe opportunity for the right Republican to swipe a larger than usual share of Jewish votes and/or pick the Obama campaign’s pocket. Skeptical? I would be, too, except for one thing: the sight of the Obamans scrambling to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Exactly one month after his Oval Office awkwardfest with Netanyahu, Obama made the mile-and-a-half trip from the White House to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to have dinner with several dozen wealthy Jews. His appearance had twin objectives: to rake in more than $1 million and to calm their jangled nerves. Unlike many conservative Jews, the big-ticket Democrats in the room, who had paid $25,000 to $35,800 a head to be there, didn’t believe that Obama was hostile to Israel. Yet it’s fair to say they had their share of qualms and a ton of questions.