Obama and Netanyahu: A Historical Perspective

On May 19, when President Obama endorsed the Palestinian goal of “the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps” (by which the Palestinians mean the 1967 lines with minor changes), without insisting the Palestinians sign a conflict-ending agreement or recognize a Jewish state with defensible borders, the president gave Israel only a few hours notice, rejected its urgent protest, and proceeded without waiting to meet the next day with its prime minister.

The next day, sitting next to the president, Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered a message as direct as diplomacy permits:

[W]hile Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines -- because these lines are indefensible. . . . And these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive.

In a high-profile panel discussion Wednesday in Jerusalem, involving Martin Indyk, Elliott Abrams, and ex-Rep. Robert Wexler, one of the topics discussed was whether Obama loves Israel in his kishkes. Wexler argued Obama had objectively shown “a lot of love,” including lobbying European leaders against recognizing a Palestinian state after “a White House session [May 20] not the easiest for an American president to get through in terms of blunt statements" by Netanyahu.

It is not clear whether Obama is still seeking to push the 1967 lines on Israel, and it is not likely his subsequent lobbying, assuming it occurred, resulted from love. It is more likely it resulted from the resolute position Netanyahu took. In that connection, it is worth noting that the confrontation regarding the 1967 lines was not unprecedented. It has happened at least three times before -- and the three prior times are instructive in understanding the position Netanyahu took during the fourth.

The prior three times are described in Yehuda Avner’s invaluable recent book, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. Avner was present as note-taker each time, and the quotations in his book are verbatim transcriptions of his notes.

  • Prime Minister Levi Eshkol Meets President Lyndon Johnson.
  • In early 1968, Eshkol came to the United States, desperate to obtain American military equipment, since France -- who had previously been Israel’s supplier -- had imposed an arms embargo. Eshkol explained to President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk that the Syrian and Egyptian armies had already been rebuilt for another war, with Soviet help, and Israel lacked what it needed to defend itself.