Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Netanyahu's House: Knowing Your Audience

Anyone with a shred of knowledge about the Middle East conflict knows that yesterday's performance alienated its most critical audience. I am not speaking about Netanyahu's performance. He played the Israeli center, American Jews, and American media like Isaac Stern playing the Brahms. I mean the performance of members of Congress, who watched him with ingenuous smiles, and jumped to their feet to applaud every word, including, it seems, "and" and "but." Did they really not understand that, for the rest of the world, they were the more important show?

Israel, the only democracy. Cheers. Israel in Gaza, defending itself against Iran's terror proxies. Cheers. Judea and Samaria. Cheers. Israel as the reason why the Palestinian economy booms. Cheers. Conflict, not over Palestinian state, but over Jewish state. Cheers.

Compromise must reflect settlements since 1967. Cheers. Israel will not make the lines of 1967 the basis for negotiation. Cheers. Israel will take in no refugees at all. Cheers. Jerusalem must remain Israel's united capital. Cheers. No negotiations with Abbas if Hamas is in the government. Cheers. (For a more comprehensive analysis, read Mitchell Plitnick's fine post.)

"American members of Congress did not seem to realize that this speech was tuned in by young people across Palestine and the Middle East," my friend Sammy Abu Dayyeh, the CEO of Net-Tours, told me over a gloomy lunch at his Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem. "I was shocked, I admit. Everything Netanyahu did and said was predictable. Okay. But the way he was received--that I did not really expect. It was as if the Congress was actually trying to incite the Arab street just when, since three months ago, everything is changing, and Obama is trying to show himself on the right side of things."

No doubt, Netanyahu's speech will be seen as historic. It may well turn a tide, just what Netanyahu needs to wrestle Obama into submission, even silence internal critics accusing him of alienating Washington--a masterful job, ingratiating, clever, poised.

But Congress's enthusiasm for its slyness may also mark the moment the rising Arab world, including what will rise in the streets of Palestine and on the borders of Israel, dismisses America as a misguided empire. The speech may eventually prove a world-historical photo-op as damaging in its way as Abu Ghraib; the moment to despair, once and for all, of America's once-promising young president being seen as even-handed.

This reaction of Congress may also mark the moment when intellectuals across Europe and Latin America--also on American campuses, for that matter--claim absolute proof that America's Middle East diplomacy is bought-and-paid-for by the people Netanyahu romanticizes. It is a people they are inclined to romanticize, too, though in a quite different way, alas.