Beware the ides of September

President Barack Obama’s two recent speeches on the Middle East, at the State Department and the AIPAC conference, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s response and related rhetoric, indicate that neither really understands that September at the United Nations is the only relevant arena they should be addressing. Meanwhile, Netanyahu picked a totally superfluous fight with the American president.

That Obama appears to be interested in lofty ideals of self-determination for the people in the Middle East, while Netanyahu is playing to his hawkish home coalition and his misguided supporters in America, is really irrelevant. So, to a large extent, is the two leaders’ mutual display of hostile body language. We already knew they didn’t like one another. What’s more important is that neither has a viable peace plan that might postpone or render unnecessary the September confrontation.

Last week at the State Department, Obama apparently thought he was serving Israel’s real needs. He acknowledged the problematic nature of dealing with Hamas. He recognized the need for adjustments, through land swaps, to the 1967 lines that are the inevitable focus of Israeli-Palestinian border negotiations ever since the Rogers plan of 1969. He introduced the important innovation of prioritizing a deal over borders and security before the parties tackle the more intractable and perhaps unsolvable issues of refugees and holy places. He avoided mentioning the Arab Peace Initiative, which Netanyahu rejects (and which presumably appears at least temporarily irrelevant to the US president in view of the chaos in the Arab world). He supported Israel’s right to be a Jewish and democratic state and its capacity to defend itself by itself. He insisted on the urgency of ending the conflict.

Not only was Netanyahu’s response of publicly lecturing the president a display of arrogance and bad manners. The Israeli prime minister seemingly insisted on misunderstanding Obama, as if the latter had endorsed Hamas and the right of return and as if the 1967 borders plus settlement blocs (Netanyahu’s latest position) are any more or less defensible than the 1967 borders plus land swaps, when in fact they mean the same thing. Netanyahu’s arrogance presumably in part reflects his belief that the US-Israel special relationship at least requires that Obama inform him in advance of the policy positions he intends to present. Obama presumably believes that Netanyahu, through his behavior over the past two years, has forfeited this right. On Sunday, at the AIPAC conference, Obama tried again to explain what he meant, while padding his delivery with even greater support for Israel’s security needs.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are escalating, with mixed consequences. PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas published an op-ed in the New York Times that grossly distorts the history of the events of 1948, paints him as an anachronism and presumably convinced a few more Israelis of good will that he will never be a partner for ending this conflict. On the other hand, the Nakba day attempts to breach Israel’s border fences seemingly integrated the Palestinian struggle with the Arab revolutionary wave.

Obama, it is important to note, dealt very differently with these two phenomena: by reassuring Israel of his support for its status as a Jewish state and postponing even discussion of the refugee issue to a time when the conflict moves to a state-to-state basis, he served a basic Israeli need. But by preaching the gospel of Arab people power, he may be understood in some Palestinian quarters to be endorsing another intifada after September. And by not energetically inaugurating a renewed peace process, he made sure that September will happen.

Notably, Abbas has said nothing in response to Obama’s new policy presentation. He is presumably unhappy with Obama’s demand to prioritize territory over refugees, even though that is exactly what he seeks to do at the United Nations in September, and with Obama’s demand for clarifications regarding Fateh-Hamas dealings, which will probably no longer be important even to Abbas after September.

The main thrust of Obama’s State Department speech was an attempt to integrate all aspects of American policy with regard to a radically changing Middle East. It’s not clear why he felt the need to do this when he is not about to intervene on behalf of the Syrian or Bahraini masses and he has no active, US-sponsored peace process to offer Israelis and Palestinians. To talk about the Middle East "not as it is, but as it should be" is extremely ambitious and almost certainly over-reaching. As with his Cairo speech some two years ago, he is in danger of falling hostage to a paradigm of words that replace actions.

This writer has only one hope left. After this week, the speechmaking will be over for a while. All those Israelis, Americans and Europeans of good will who for months have evinced confidence that it is still possible to squeeze a viable peace process out of Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas, should now come to their senses. It’s time to prepare not for a bilateral process but for a UN process. It’s not too late to leverage the Arab UN initiative into a win-win dynamic for both Israelis and Palestinians that will transform a seemingly hopeless morass into a far more manageable two-state conflict.