Netanyahu speech leaves Obama's plans in tatters

Benjamin Netanyahu and his admirers in the US congress have left President Barack Obama's Middle East plan in scraps and tatters.

The rapturous reception for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Capitol Hill on Tuesday is bad news for President Barack Obama - not only because the Israeli leader has been hinting that Mr Obama's ideas on peace are a risk to Israel, but because the legislators of both parties were roaring their approval of a speech that puts the kibosh on any resumption of the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The assembled House members and senators rose to cheer Mr Netanyahu's every point, no matter how bellicose or deliberately misleading. Israel shines like a beacon of liberty to the risen youth of the Arab world, the Israeli leader said with a straight face. "Israel is not what's wrong with the Middle East; Israel is what is right with the Middle East."

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, of course, share an immediate goal of blocking the Palestinian effort to seek international recognition for statehood when the UN General Assembly convenes in September. Mr Obama had made clear, in his speech on Sunday to the Israel lobbying organisation Aipac, that while the US would continue to back the Jewish state to the hilt, Israel was still in danger of becoming an international pariah. The only thing that could reverse its growing diplomatic isolation was a peace offer to the Palestinians that could prompt a resumption of talks, which the president could then tout to European and Arab allies as an alternative to the UN vote. But the Israeli leader's speech left Mr Obama empty-handed.

He might have seen that coming: last week, Mr Netanyahu threw a hissy fit in Washington after Mr Obama publicly stated the conventional wisdom that a two-state peace agreement would be based on 1967 borders, "with mutually agreed land swaps". Those borders were "indefensible", Mr Netanyahu warned, demanding that Mr Obama change his tune.

On Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu appeared scornful of Mr Obama's concerns. The reason there was no Palestinian state, he told Congress, was the obduracy of the Palestinian leadership. "So far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if that meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it." The Palestinians have long dismissed this new precondition, introduced by Mr Netanyahu in 2009, as a red herring; the PLO long ago recognised Israel's right to exist.

In the interests of peace Mr Netanyahu promised to "be generous" in how much of the occupied West Bank he would award a Palestinian state - well, he angrily rejected the idea that it was occupied, saying it was, in fact, part of a 4,000-year-old Jewish state. But Israel would not return to its 1967 borders; would keep its settlements and all of Jerusalem; would not discuss the fate of Palestinian refugees; and would keep its forces along the Jordan river separating a Palestinian state from its Arab neighbours. And before any negotiations, Mr Abbas would have to "tear up" the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement.

Mr Netanyahu was not trying to make it easy for Mr Abbas to return to the negotiating table. But the Israeli leader is a late adopter of the "land for peace" principle. He campaigned for office in 1996 in opposition to the Oslo Accords and once elected, did his best to halt their implementation. He even opposed the 2005 Gaza pullout by his party's then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon. By the time he was re-elected in 2009, it was no longer diplomatically possible to reject Palestinian statehood in principle, so he publicly declared support for a two-state solution - but added new preconditions and restrictions. Indeed, right after Mr Netanyahu made his first "two-state" speech, his father and ideological mentor, the historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu, stated that Bibi would prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state by insisting on preconditions that no Arab leader could accept.

Mr Netanyahu on Tuesday seemed oblivious of Mr Obama's warnings of the diplomatic danger facing Israel. The US is, in fact, losing its influence over close allies on the issue, as February's UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity demonstrated. Washington vetoed the measure, but was opposed by every one of its allies on the Council, none of whom was prepared to shield the Israelis from reproach for continuing actions that even Mr Obama has denounced as illegitimate.

While the US would fight UN recognition of Palestinian statehood in September, Mr Obama also made clear that "there's a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations. They recognise that there is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one, not just in the Arab World but in Latin America, Asia, and Europe".

"The march to isolate Israel internationally and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process," he warned. Mr Obama put the onus on Israel to make an offer that would get the Palestinians back to the table, because even the threat of losing US financial support has reportedly failed to bully Mr Abbas to heed Washington's demands. But Mr Netanyahu isn't buying it, adopting a position that simply confirms to Palestinians, and many in Europe and the Arab world, that the "peace process" is dead. In the new international climate, Israel may pay a heavy diplomatic price for Mr Netanyahu's hard line. Indeed, the only thing that might reverse Israel's growing isolation in the months ahead would be a renewed campaign of terror attacks by Palestinian militant groups.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron