In all the discussion of how he was schooled and taken to the woodshed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, there has been little recognition of the fact that Bibi had no choice but to say what he did in the press conference on Friday.
Some pundits with specialized knowledge of the “peace process” rushed out after the Obama speech to insist that the president was merely articulating a negotiating position long accepted by both the US and Israel. With all due respect to them, that’s not the point. Negotiation itself is a process with rules dictated by human nature. The substance of a particular negotiating position isn’t the only thing that matters; it matters equally, and very often more, that one party to negotiations have leverage, or bargaining chips, to get the other party to meet him halfway.
By proclaiming a US position on the pre-1967 armistice line, as a starting point, Obama removed any leverage Israel had in negotiating the “land swaps” he referred to, as well as in bargaining over the other conditions at issue. There is a big difference between accepting an Israeli negotiating position, and announcing that the US will tolerate only that specific negotiating position.
As to why Obama did this, I believe it was largely an effort to make a bold, galvanizing announcement – one designed to prod the parties back to the table – without straying outside the boundaries of what his team regards as the tacit understanding achieved since Oslo. The president threw bones to everyone in his speech, in a sort of score-keeping attempt at tending all constituencies. In offering a catalyst to his anti-Israel base, he did not want to alienate pro-Israel constituencies in the US. He needs more than his base to get reelected. The speech reflected this, checking off a series of constituency-appeal blocks while ultimately offering almost no specifics.
But of the few real specifics it contained, one was a condition Netanyahu knew he could not reenter negotiations under prejudice from. If you’re negotiating for a new car, and you’re haggling at $20,000, you don’t tell the salesman you’re willing to go to $22,000. You hang in there and make him “incentivize” you to go higher with add-ons or other concessions. If he simply won’t come down from $25,000, you may even walk away, because that deal just doesn’t work for you. But if your wife is there giving you “spouse eye” and audibly whispering, “Honey, I want this car, give the man $25,000,” does that aid your negotiation or hinder it?
If Obama had merely recommitted America to seeking a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, without staking out a specific parameter for the negotiations, I doubt Bibi would have made the statements he did in the press conference on Friday. It all could have been left unsaid, for who knows how many more months. But Obama backed him into a corner by announcing a US position based on the pre-1967 armistice line. Failing to address that prejudicial announcement – appearing with the American president in seeming accord – would have made Israel look weak and out of options. Israel can’t afford that; indeed, no nation in that part of the world can.
So Bibi said what had to be said. Where Obama had stepped in and outlined a position the US has no business delineating, Netanyahu said what only the prime minister of Israel is in a position to say. It was not Obama’s place to say any of these things – that the “right of return” demand is “not gonna happen,” that the pre-1967 armistice line is not acceptable as a border – any more than it was his place to impose the pre-1967 line as a condition. The purpose Obama served – however inadvertently – was getting Bibi to say these things. And say them from the White House, sitting next to the president of the United States, to boot.
Obama served this purpose by hearkening to his particular muse: the Muse of Campaigning. I’m not sure he has ever heard from the Muse of Negotiation, but in the case of his Middle East speech, the two muses had conflicting advice.
Obama isn’t the first American president to give short shrift to the fundamentals of negotiation; most of our presidents know little about it. As a superpower, we are essentially a continent-size island with only two land borders, and our chief executive is his own separate branch of government, intended to counterbalance the legislature rather than emerging from it after years of parliamentary sausage-making. It is rare for our presidents to enter the office with any meaningful experience in negotiation, and even rarer for them to appreciate it as a political discipline and be good at it.
But I don’t know that we’ve ever had a president who seemed, as much as Obama does, to live in a galaxy far, far away from “negotiation,” the human concept. It’s not that he appears to dismiss the ramifications of his actions for ongoing negotiations; it’s that they don’t even seem to occur to him. In one of the most counterintuitive episodes in a long time, it took an attitude this blunderingly dysfunctional to corner the consummate statesman Benjamin Netanyahu and induce him to say, bluntly and unequivocally, what had to be said about Israel’s irreducible requirements for survival.