In a bravura speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handily won over Congress on Tuesday. Just as important, Netanyahu seemed to go out of his way to win over President Obama, at least partially.
“It wasn’t an accident” that Netanyahu included several favorable references to the president in his speech, the prime minister’s spokesman, Mark Regev, told National Journal. “I think the relationship is much stronger than people on the outside think.”
(RELATED: Mutual Affection for Netanyahu on the Hill)
Netanyahu had been concerned by Obama’s willingness to become the first U.S. president to call publicly for the use of 1967 borders as the basis for peace negotiations. In response, he had taken on the president in public over the issue in recent days, even going so far as to rebuke Obama publicly during an Oval Office meeting last week. Obama, seeking to blunt a Palestinian effort to win a U.N. General Assembly vote unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state, had declared in his own speech last week that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Such a statement has long been sought by Palestinian negotiators, and Netanyahu was furious and alarmed by Obama’s decision to offer it up, apparently while getting nothing in return.
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Still, the prime minister apparently recognized that he had been getting hazardously close to alienating the president with his frank criticisms. Considering that the odds are fair that Obama will be reelected, and therefore will have a major say in Israel’s future for the next six years, that was a dangerous game in a time of Mideast turmoil (although one that Netanyahu has been playing for most of Obama’s time in office). Regev said the prime minister has been reassured since then that Obama is firm on three basic issues: that peace can be achieved only through mutual negotiation, that there can be no dealing with Hamas, and that Israel must be recognized as the Jewish state.
In his speech before a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu seemed to look for opportunities to praise Obama, first for killing Osama bin Laden (“Good riddance!” Netanyahu said), then for his “steadfast commitment to Israel’s security” even during economically tough times, and again for taking a strong stand “to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”
While Netanyahu again raised the issue of final borders in his speech, his tone was far more conciliatory. “As President Obama said, the border [in a peace settlement] will be different than it was on June 4, 1967,” Netanyahu said. Obama, in a speech on Sunday to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, had expressed some chagrin that critics harped on his reference to ’67 borders without mentioning that he had added his line about land swaps. Those critics had included Netanyahu.
Though Netanyahu maintained mostly a hard line, he also went further than he had before, and risked alienating his political base by acknowledging that not all Israeli settlements on the West Bank would be included in the final borders of Israel. “He chose every word very carefully,” Regev said.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said he had no specific comment on what Regev described as Netanyahu’s effort at rapprochement with the president.
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