Monday, 23 May 2011

Israel Matzav: Why did Obama do something so dumb?

Why did Obama do something so dumb?

J.E. Dyer believes that President Obama has no clue how to negotiate.

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.

I was going to point out that Obama spent two years (or was it four?) in the Senate, but that seems kind of pointless. But what if Obama purposely wanted to degrade Israel's position? What could go wrong?

Israel Matzav: Why did Obama do something so dumb?

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