Bibi and Barack Meet: So Much for the Fireworks

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Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued their icy relationship in front of the cameras Friday after what the President somewhat ruefully called “prolonged” talks, suggesting that Bibi had delivered one of his trademark multi-part lectures on the requirements of Israeli security. The two were correct and diplomatic, but as they have at previous meetings, both gave the impression that they don’t trust each other much.

The photo-op will disappoint those who have been screaming that U.S.-Israeli relations are in crisis thanks to Obama’s speech on the Middle East on Thursday. Considering that neither the U.S. nor Israel has a strategy for getting peace talks restarted or to blunt the effect of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood in September, the public appearance event clear that Obama and Netanyahu remain perfectly comfortable with the other aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship, like military and economic relations, that are completely solid.

There are two reasons for that. First, Obama’s statement yesterday that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” is not, as many are claiming, a demand for a return to pre-1967 borders. 1967 lines refer at most to the deployment of Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian forces on the eve of the 1967 war, and swaps refer to land to be traded on either side of those lines to accommodate in part Isarael’s security concerns. Second, Obama’s statement did not mark the first time an American President has called for a return to those lines: Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter all did.

So, no matter what political opportunities Netanyahu or the GOP try to seize in claiming a radical shift in U.S. policy, on substance there’s hardly a rift.

Obama and Netanyahu do face a real challenge right now: how to avoid a new outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the run-up to September. Renewed violence, more than anything else, could terminally damage hopes for peace and steer the political transformations in the region in the wrong direction. Unfortunately the florid and overheated reaction to Obama’s statement on Thursday is making progress on that front even harder.