The stage is being set for calamity: The high risk of Palestinian riots to fully claim their state, followed by very tough Israeli crackdowns—adding fire to the unexpected and unpredictable popular upheavals across the Middle East.
According to American, Israeli, and Palestinian officials, the tales within counter tales begin with an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on May 24. Boehner acts as if the idea of inviting “Bibi,” as the prime minister is universally known, was his own. But the facts indicate that this most-sought-after event was initiated at Bibi’s behest. Now, the White House couldn’t say no and risk an open rupture with Israel’s supporters, so officials there unhappily went along.
The Obama administration saw the “invitation” as a power play by Bibi to head off new and tough U.S. demands on Israel, and particularly to try to corner the White House into backing Israel in the September U.N. vote. That seems to be precisely what Bibi had in mind as well, but—and here’s one of the many new twists in this saga—he had no clear idea of what he would say to Congress. Indeed, the U.S. side can’t seem to figure out what to say either, or what strategy to adopt overall at this time. The only ones who appear to know their hand are the Palestinian leaders. They intend to stand pat, hoping that the pending U.N. vote will force critical Israeli concessions without the Palestinians having to lift a compromising finger. Mind you, the Israeli and American governments are talking to each other behind the scenes constantly, trying to discover the other’s thinking without divulging their own. At this moment, however, there doesn’t seem to be much to discover.
Back in Jerusalem, Bibi is planning how to generate such a strong embrace by Congress in his address that President Obama will fear abandoning him.
• Dan Ephron: The Wrath of AbbasBack in Jerusalem, Bibi is planning how to generate such a strong embrace by Congress in his address that President Obama will fear abandoning him. At the same time, he doesn’t wish to publicly confront and thus alienate Obama. Israelis feel they’ve offered major compromises over the years, with nothing in return from the Palestinian Authority headed by President Abbas. Bibi seems inclined, contrary to his right-wing coalition partners, to speak of a return to the 1967 borders with land swaps to protect Israeli settlements. He won’t give a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and he wants the PA to accept Israel as a Jewish state with a very limited right of Palestinian return to Israel. Further, Israel believes it must have security agreements to limit sharply the armaments and military activities of a Palestinian state.
But Bibi is unlikely to showcase all this to Congress. Present thinking is to do some peace talk, plus words of caution about Iran, plus a welcome and a wariness about the new popular awakenings among Arabs. The aim is to capture as much U.S. support as possible at the U.N. and maybe add two or three states like Germany to the tiny list of nations voting against Palestinian statehood. Bibi realizes he faces substantial isolation at the U.N., but he doesn’t want total isolation.
As for the Obama team at the moment, it has many choices and no answers.