In the Arena

Bibi and Barak

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Time’s Massimo Calabresi has a fine piece on the thorny relationship between Bibi Netanyahu and Barack Obama, in which he clears the air about what happened at their March 23 meeting in the White House–a meeting that has become the subject of viral rumor-mongering among neoconservatives and assorted Israeli-firsters. Here, for example, is John Podhoretz’s “account” of the meeting:

We still don’t know quite what happened, but it appears that the president came into the room with a list of unilateral demands, that he grew impatient with Netanyahu’s answers, and that he left unceremoniously by claiming he was going to have dinner with his wife and kids but that he would “be around” in case the prime minister “changed” his tune.

The bold-face emphasis above is mine. Because it’s interesting that, from not knowing quite what happened, Podhoretz gets all the way to this:

This is meaningful. It suggests not merely that Obama differs with Israel on matters of policy but also that he takes these differences personally. And that, in turn, demonstrates there is an animus at work here, a predisposition to think badly of Israel—to view the Jewish state at best as an impediment to the good working order of a fairer world and at worst as a sower of discord. This is a bitter truth…

A bitter truth! Oy-freaking-vey! Turns out the actual truth is not so bitter. Here is Calabresi’s account, based on multiple interviews with aides to Netanyahu and Obama:

On March 23, Netanyahu and Obama held a one-on-one in the Oval Office with no staffers. Scheduled for half an hour, it ran 90 minutes, the longest meeting Obama had held with any foreign leader. Much of it focused on Iran and issues unrelated to the peace process. But Netanyahu also put a proposal on the table for East Jerusalem, according to Israeli and American sources familiar with the conversation. Obama thought Netanyahu’s ideas were promising, and the two men continued the discussion with a handful of staffers, then joined a larger group in the Roosevelt Room.

Obama went to the residence for dinner with his family; Netanyahu continued to work on specific language with U.S. and Israeli staffers in the Roosevelt Room. At Netanyahu’s request, Obama returned, in casual clothes, and the two men spent an additional 35 minutes together alone, going over Netanyahu’s proposal for getting past the East Jerusalem impasse. When Netanyahu put his new proposal to his closest Cabinet members days later, they approved it. Netanyahu refused to accept a blanket freeze on eviction, demolition and construction in East Jerusalem, but he broke with previous Prime Ministers and offered to allow the Palestinians to reopen paragovernmental institutions in East Jerusalem, say senior Israeli and American officials. It was a rare moment of unity between two opposing worldviews: a symbolic gesture by Netanyahu that satisfied Obama’s practical needs.

Again, the emphasis is mine. And the truth appears to be the precise opposite of what Podhoretz posited: a moment of hateful–dare I imply, maybe, perhaps,crypto-Muslim, anti-semitic–spite on President Obama’s part was actually a rare, successful negotiation between two allies. It should be noted that Calabresi’s nuanced, balanced account does not gild the lily: there is real tension over Netanyahu’s desire to gobble up all of Jerusalem, in contravention of the Geneva Conventions.

Podhoretz is, thus, peddling the sort of uninformed, nefarious crap that elements of the Jewish community have been slinging about  Barack Obama since he emerged as a potential President. It should be noted, yet again, that Obama’s position on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is precisely the same as that of every American President since Nixon (though, it must be noted, that George W. Bush mouthed the policy, but didn’t really believe it). As the editor of Commentary, a place where informed argument once took place, JPod presides over a greasy gusher of swill like this on a daily basis. No actual defense of Israeli encroachment onto Palestinian territories is ever broached there. That is because the only defense possible is an imperial one–we took the land, we own it. The Palestinians are barbarians. (And, in the evangelical variant: it’s prophesy. Jewish control of all the Holy Land is necessary for the End of Times to commence.)

In its refusal to reflect on the moral consequences of these actions–and its refusal to engage in a serious discussion of these issues–Commentary stands well outside the Jewish intellectual tradition, a tradition of rigor and the appreciation of philosophical inconvenience, that many of us cherish.

(I will concede this much to Podhoretz: Maybe Barack should have offered Bibi a nice pastrami sandwich…although Netanyahu probably had other dinner plans.)