At a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the East Room Wednesday afternoon, President Obama took two questions each from the American press and Afghan reporters, one of which provided him with a golden opportunity to lead Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in from the cold a little bit.
The White House has been offering blistering criticism of Netanyahu over some of the desperate rhetorical measures he took in the waning days and hours of his reelection campaign, including a racist appeal to counter Arab voter turnout and a pledge not to allow a Palestinian state during the duration of his tenure. Here's what he told a reporter from Israeli website NRG:
"I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel. This is the genuine reality that has been created here in the past few years. Those who do not understand that bury their heads in the sand. The left-wing parties do it, bury their heads in the sand, time and again."
When the reporter asked "But if you are the prime minister, a Palestinian state will not arise?", Netanyahu replied "Indeed."
Since then, Netanyahu has quasi-apologized if his anti-Arab talk offended anyone, and tried to walk back his remarks about the two-state solution the very next day. In an interview with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell, Netanyahu performed what's being called the most dizzying of flip-flops, saying that "I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that circumstances have to change."
The White House, meanwhile, has been uncompromising in its criticism of Netanyahu, both from Press Secretary Josh Earnest's podium and the President's own words. The press has been very focused on the supposed personal conflict between the two leaders, repeatedly asking why the President takes Netanyahu "at his word" that he opposes a two-state solution, but not when he backs up on that, like Netanyahu's his girlfriend picking flower petals. He's not trying to hurt Bibi's feelings, he's making a realistic assessment of Netanyahu's public statements.
At Wednesday's presser, though, Obama was asked a grown-up question about Netanyahu's position, namely what, if anything, the Israeli PM could do to restore confidence in him as a credible broker for peace. That's an important question because the answer might reveal whether the Obama administration's response has been an attempt to pressure Netanyahu into taking action on a two-state solution, or genuine dismay at the prospects for peace under his administration.
Instead, the President pointed out that "the issue here is not what I believe, but it’s what the Palestinians and the parties in the negotiations and the Israeli people believe is possible," for all the reporters and commentators who are suddenly unfamiliar with the term "public diplomacy. Obama also explained that Bibi's new old position from after the election isn't that different from his old new one from right before it:
"Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the election run-up, stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was Prime Minister. And I took him at his word that that's what he meant, and I think that a lot of voters inside of Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally.
"Afterwards, he pointed out that he didn’t say “never,” but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created. But, of course, the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet anytime soon. So even if you accepted, I think, the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time -- which was always the presumption."
The President never did get around to answering the question, though, which is wise, because once such conditions are set, the onus shifts off of Netanyahu, who can then say Obama's being unreasonable, or respond with half-measures. What the President really did was to leave it up to Netanyahu to convince the world that he's serious about peace, rather than taking that job for himself.
President Obama was also asked about a report that Israel spied on the U.S. during the Iran nuclear talks, which Israel denies. The President declined to comment on the report, but immediately followed that up by noting that " we have not just briefed Congress about the progress or lack thereof that's being made, but we also brief the Israelis and our other partners in the region and around the world," which seemed to be an attempt to give Israel cover by implying that any leaks to the press, however selective, were the result of those briefings, and not espionage. To that extent, they're apparently still friends.
The protective streak that many journalists and politicians feel for Benjamin Netanyahu is not doing him, or Israel, any favors. The President rightly knows that there's no way he can convince the world that Netanyahu is credible on Palestine, and that if anyone can do that, it's Netanyahu himself.