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As Netanyahu Comes to Town, Here’s What Obama Has To Say About Him

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Neither the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor Iran’s nuclear program is the top foreign policy issue in the news, but the annual AIPAC Policy Conference waits for no man—not even Vladimir Putin. The confab brings somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 strong supporters of Israel to Washington, D.C., and this year, that includes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will visit the White House Monday and address the conference Tuesday morning. As importantly, the conference ensures a yearly focus on the U.S. administration’s Mideast policies, frequently serving as an occasion for clarification or a rollout of what’s next. Since Putin plays by his own rules, it must be a relief for President Barack Obama to return to familiar terrain, where he can speak in the special euphemistic code associated with Mideast policy.

Like his two predecessors, Obama sees Peace in the Middle East as a second-term legacy project, and doesn’t want to get burned (as his two predecessors were). He is now personally injecting himself into the process, with the goal of getting both sides to agree to a “framework”—one of those deathless peace process euphemisms—by April, when this round of negotiations is scheduled to end.

Point is, this is the time of year when Obama reaches out to America’s pro-Israel Jewish community and tries to demonstrate he possesses what it was frequently said Bill Clinton had, which is an understanding of Israel in his “kishke,” or gut. (You think I made up that word, so here is an op-ed called “Obama Passes Kishke Test” and here is the time Elliott Abrams said Obama needs a “kishke transplant.”)

Two years ago, as rumors of Israeli plans to launch a military strike on Iranian facilities reached fever pitch, Obama invited journalist Jeffrey Goldberg to the White House for an interview on the eve of another AIPAC conference and Netanyahu visit. Goldberg is a very prominent Jewish journalist writing on these issues; “if in fifty years, for some reason, Jews decide to build their own airport in Bethesda, it will be named for Jeffrey Goldberg,” wrote Mark Leibovich in 2013’s This Town. This year, Obama did it again, and Goldberg’s indispensable interview was published Sunday afternoon on Bloomberg View. What follows is a guide for the perplexed (that’s also a Jewish reference) to what Obama was really saying when he was saying something else.

Obama said: “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

Obama meant: “Yes, we still have a Security Council veto, but using it might get, y’know, more difficult. Like we may lose the special veto pen, or something. Also defending Israel when there is an obvious double standard is one thing, but just standing by while settlement construction continues is embarrassing, and we aren’t going to do it forever.”

Obama said: “We have a high degree of confidence that when [Iran’s leaders] look at 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region that are engaged in constant training exercises under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past, that they should take my statements seriously. And the American people should as well, and the Israelis should as well, and the Saudis should as well.”

Obama meant: “Please, everyone, get off my back about whether I would bomb Iran.”

Obama said: “I think [Secretary of State John Kerry] has been simply stating what observers inside of Israel and outside of Israel recognize.”

Obama meant: Earlier this year, Kerry said, “For Israel there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things.” The comment was misinterpreted, probably willfully, by several right-wing Israeli politicians, and led to a “flap” (another great euphemism). Now Obama is saying, “Please don’t shoot the messenger.”

Obama said: “[Palestinians] recognize that Israel is not going anywhere.”

Obama meant: B.D.S. isn’t going to work.”

Obama said: “[Netanyahu] has an opportunity also to take advantage of a potential realignment of interests in the region, as many of the Arab countries see a common threat in Iran. The only reason that that potential realignment is not, and potential cooperation is not, more explicit is because of the Palestinian issue.

Obama meant: “Saudi Arabia cares more about Iran than the peace process right now. Israel and Saudi Arabia agree on Iran. Israel’s going to get the best possible deal if it acts now. You understand I obviously I cannot comment on any potential military cooperation between Israel and Saudia Arabia that may or may not be taking place.”

Obama said: “Part of what John Kerry has done has been to dig into Israel’s security needs with the help of General John Allen, the former commander in Afghanistan.”

Obama meant: “Israeli security and P.A. control of the West Bank is currently insured by U.S. soldiers, although you rarely read about that. Whatever happens to troop levels, The Pivot, whatever, the U.S. isn’t disengaging from the region anytime soon.”

Obama said: “What is absolutely true is Prime Minister Netanyahu is smart. He is tough. He is a great communicator. He is obviously a very skilled politician.”

Obama meant: “No, the prime minister and I don’t particularly care for each other.”

Obama said: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”

Obama meant: “I can quote Hillel. You should trust me!”

What most struck me about the interview is the way Obama speaks of Israel’s interests and the end of the settlements as though he were a typical American Jewish “liberal Zionist”—an Israel supporter, a settlements opponent, constantly trying to calibrate his mind and his heart (or his kishke)—kibitzing on some progressive listserv. “I have not yet heard, however, a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution,” he said. “Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.”

He added:

The only thing that I’ve heard is, ‘We’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing, and deal with problems as they arise. And we'll build settlements where we can. And where there are problems in the West Bank, we will deal with them forcefully. We’ll cooperate or co-opt the Palestinian Authority.’ And yet, at no point do you ever see an actual resolution to the problem….And as I said before, it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.

That part does not require translation.