Obama-Bibi: The Preview

The pundits and papers are weighing in as Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu get set for their first White House meeting:

Ha’aretz has put together slideshow of previous meetings between U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers. Plus columnist Aluf Benn weighs in with a piece titled “How does an Israeli diplomatic visit to the U.S. work?,” outling the step-by-step standard protocol for such powwows. And Sunday the newspaper ran an editorial calling on Netanyahu to say “yes” to Obama: “Now Netanyahu must show he can set aside his ideological opposition to dividing the country and support for expanding settlements and, for the good of the state, strengthen relations with the United States and advance the peace process with the Palestinians and the Arab states. The Israeli public expects him to adjust his political stances to international reality. The Haaretz-Dialog survey published Friday showed a clear majority—57 percent—wants Netanyahu to embrace the ‘two states for two peoples’ principle when meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House tomorrow.”

Herb Keinon (Jerusalem Post): Summit meetings at this level have two components, a policy component and a personal one. In this case the personal component – since this is the first meeting of the two men since they have taken over leadership of their respective countries – is no less important, and perhaps even more important, then the policy component. Netanyahu understands this, and will strive—according to senior officials—to develop a positive relationship based on mutual trust. Netanyahu understands this particularly well, especially since he failed to develop that type of relationship during his first tenure as prime minister with then-president Bill Clinton. Netanyahu would do well to take a page out of Ariel Sharon’s playbook. Sharon, during his first meetings with then-US president George W. Bush, said that while Israel and the US would not always see eye to eye, ‘there would be no surprises,’ and that he would be frank with the US and ‘do what he said he would do and always mean what he said’ to the US president. Though there will be those pundits who will parse every phrase, and scrutinize every piece of ‘body language’ when Netanyahu and Obama come before the cameras following their meeting on Monday, it will be difficult to judge at this time whether the two ‘clicked.’ That will only be apparent to the public with time.”

Jackson Diehl (Washington Post): “Today Barack Obama will begin a diplomatic relationship that is likely to be as complex, as vexing and possibly as troubled as any he will have during the first years of his presidency. His meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu won’t produce the blow-up some expect; a smooth veneer of harmony is more likely. Yet it will quietly inaugurate a contest of wills between two very different politicians—one that could help determine whether the Middle East shifts toward an era of negotiation and detente, or of deepening conflict. … Sometime in the next few months, one of these men may give way. Obama could come to accept that frontal confrontation is the only option for Iran and that Middle East peace talks must take a back seat to it; Iranian behavior could well make such a conclusion inescapable. Or Netanyahu could abandon his campaign pledges and offer the Golan Heights to Syria. Perhaps an incipient initiative to broaden the Middle East peace process so that Israel bargains across the board with Palestinians and Arab states over a comprehensive settlement will take on momentum, with help from Jordan’s King Abdullah. An equally likely scenario, however, is that Obama and Netanyahu will simply thwart each other—to the delight of their common enemies. The resulting friction would be more dangerous for Netanyahu, who learned a decade ago that an Israeli prime minister who falls out with Washington cannot easily survive in office. If he is to succeed in the Middle East, Obama may need to use that leverage. He can start now by reaffirming U.S. support for Israel—while leaving room for distinction between the country and its prime minister.”

Jeffrey Goldberg (New York Times): “When the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visits the White House on Monday for his first stage-setting visit, he will carry with him an agenda that clashes insistently with that of President Obama. Mr. Obama wants Mr. Netanyahu to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu wants something else entirely: the president’s agreement that Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Daniel Pipes: “Question: How deep runs Obama’s antipathy toward the Jewish state? Some predictions: (1) Iran being Netanyahu’s top priority, he will avoid a crisis by mouthing the words ‘two-state solution’ and agreeing to diplomacy with the Palestinian Authority. (2) Democrats too will be on their best behavior, checking their alienation through Netanyahu¹s visit, momentarily averting a meltdown. (3) Obama, who has plenty of problems on his hands, does not need a fight with Israel and its supporters. His move to the center, however tactical, will last through the Netanyahu visit. Short term prospects, then, hold out more continuity than change in US-Israel relations. Those concerned with Israel’s security will prematurely breathe a sigh of relief – – premature because the status quo is fragile and US relations with Israel could rapidly unravel.”

Shmuel Rosner: “It was very convenient for Israel to have 16 years in which two consecutive Presidents (Clinton, Bush) that were also great friends. Israel can not and should not delude itself into thinking that all future American Presidents will be as friendly as those two. If Obama proves to be a ‘friend,’ and not a ‘great friend,’ that’s fine.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht (Wall Street Journal): “Can the United States and its European allies peacefully prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? And if not, would Israel try to do so militarily, even if doing so greatly angered President Barack Obama? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington today. These questions could well make or break his premiership and Mr. Obama’s presidency.”

Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now: Right wing Israeli politicians once believed that they can score popularity points domestically if they demonstrate national honor by standing up to American presidents. Israelis and their leaders know better now. With hemorrhaging popularity, Netanyahu will not want to be portrayed in Israel as jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with Washington. Netanyahu wants his visit to Washington to be a success. To portray it as a successful visit, he may be willing to demonstrate flexibility. The question is whether the Obama administration would be able to follow up on the narrow openings that Netanyahu may offer on Monday and broaden those cracks to push through them a diplomatic breakthrough.”

Roger Cohen (New York Times): So here’s what Obama should say to Netanyahu when he says Arab states have identical fears over Iran: “We’re aware of this, Mr. Prime Minister, which is why we sent Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others to reassure Arab allies. But the U.S. interest is not served by the Mideast status quo. Our interest lies in new region-wide security arrangements that promote a two-state peace, end 30 years of non-communication with Iran, and ultimately afford Israel a brighter future. You can’t build settlements and expect Iran’s influence to diminish.” When Netanyahu demurs, Obama should add: “And you know what the Arabs tell me in private? That Israeli use of force against Iran would be a disaster. And that it’s impossible to tell Iran it can’t have nukes when Israel has them. They say that’s a double standard. And you know what? They may have a point.”

Max Boot (Commentary): an Obama administration official, pressed as to why prospects for peace talks are not unreservedly bleak, told me privately that Bibi might be prepared to do a “Nixon in China”–i.e., to make concessions from the right. That is what Menachem Begin did in the Camp David talks. But the historical figure we should be invoking is not Nixon, Carter, or any other U.S. president. It is Anwar Sadat. …Where, oh where, is the Palestinian Sadat–i.e., a responsible negotiating partner who can make peace and mean it? Until such a statesman arises, there is little or nothing that either Israeli or American leaders can do to bring a final resolution of the never-ending peace process.

Mitchell Bard of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise: Netanyahu will not clash with Obama because he understands the United States and America’s interests in the region. They may disagree over Israel’s settlement policy, but this is nothing new; it is an issue that has been contentious for almost four decades. This will hardly overshadow the far more extensive areas of agreement on the desirability of continuing negotiations with the Palestinians and the threat posed by Iran.Some people are hung up on trying to get Netanyahu to say the magic words “two state solution” as if the mere utterance would bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The phrase is meaningless, particularly in the present context where a civil war is ongoing among the factions of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel, controls Gaza and hopes to take over the West Bank. Fatah is desperately clinging to power in the West Bank, but cannot negotiate or implement any agreement with Israel. Obama cannot change the Palestinian reality so it will do no good for him to pressure Israel to make concessions that will not be reciprocated.

Mustafa Baghouti (Los Angeles Times): Icannot recall a more important meeting between an American president and an Israeli prime minister than today’s meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Will the Obama administration have the courage to challenge Netanyahu, or will all the talk of change dissolve in the face of a concerted one-two punch from Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? I am increasingly convinced that if Obama fails to speak out now, it will doom the two-state solution forever. Further fiddling in Washington—after eight years of it—will consign Jerusalem, the West Bank and the two-state solution to an Israeli expansionism that will overwhelm the ability of cartographers to concoct a viable Palestinian state.

Finally, what’s Netanyahu bringing the president as a gift? A Mark Twain book, reports Haaretz: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with a copy of “Pleasure Excursion to the Holy Land,” from Mark Twain’s book “The Innocents Abroad,” when they meet in Washington today. Netanyahu received the book, along with a newly published version in Hebrew (translated by Oded Peled), from the Kinneret Zmora-Bitan publishing house. In his travel memoir, Twain describes a 1867 trip to the Land of Israel, which he finds a backward and desolate place devoid of culture or law. “Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village,” he states, calling it a country where prosperity had died out, a place of lost splendor and beauty where joy has turned to sorrow, and where silence and death prevail in its holy places.

Why Are We Jews?

“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder we cried when we learned of the sale of Joseph — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik

Oh to be a fly on the wall of that great and dramatic confrontation between Judah and Joseph. The scene: Twenty-two years after being sold, Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to become Egyptian viceroy. Joseph frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph “graciously” offers to exonerate all the brothers — barring Benjamin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Judah, the engineer of Joseph’s sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial viceroy and delivers a poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Benjamin:

“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Benjamin] is not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)

In the face of such courage, it is Joseph who crumbles — breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity. How deliciously ironic that this man of control, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to withstand Potiphar’s wife’s temptations and strong enough to remain hidden for more than 22 years, capitulates to Judah.

Wherein lies the power of the Judah personality? Is this the same Judah who initiates the sale of his brother and whose conduct in the Tamar episode raises troubling questions? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence of Judah’s siblings. Why is it Judah alone who stands tall in the face of the hostile viceroy who wants to seize Benjamin? Are they not all certain of the consequent early demise of their father Jacob?

Our sages portray the development of the Judah personality. A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Judah begins to contemplate the enormity of his actions and their effect on Jacob. Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his former daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.

Unlike his role in the Joseph saga, in this epic, Judah does not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father (if this story seems puzzling — you might want to read it in its original). Tamar knows, but refuses to vocally pinpoint Judah as the father of her children. Instead she opts to merely present Judah with the evidence and ultimately forces him to make a momentous decision. In the presence of his father and grandfather, comments the Midrash, Judah is confronted with a massive internal crisis. Shall he remain passive or admit that he sired the children? Will Judah choose ephemeral ease over eternal excellence?

“Tzadkah mimeni” (“She is more righteous than I”), Judah declares. (38:26) Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth. Precisely here, our sages majestically declare, does Judah earn his messianic stripes. Judah has made mistakes in the past, but he is now willing to accept responsibility. The metamorphosis is almost done. For if Judah is able to admit responsibility it is only natural that when the crisis of Benjamin strikes that Judah plays the lead role and proclaims: “Anochi e’ervenu” (“I will be his guarantor.”) (43:9)

It is striking that Judah’s sense of responsibility now transcends his own self and creates a sense of obligation to the other. Ultimately, this proactive responsibility has a profound curative effect, as the brothers are reunited and the family healed.

Often parents in their role as mediators in great sibling struggles are privileged to hear various restatements of “it all started when he hit me back” — an argument of impeccable logic. It is not all right for our children to shirk blame. Sacred duty requires that we invest them with a sense of accountability, however unpleasant or frightening that might be. In our efforts to provide our children with everything, we may deprive them of the great gift of responsibility, engendering in its stead a sense of entitlement.

For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called Yehudim — or Jews — a derivative of the word Judah. We are not Yissachars, Dans, nor are we even Josephs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take responsibility for our flaws. Even as we do not control our circumstances, we surely control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms the basis of real spirituality. Once we acknowledge that we are accountable for ourselves and indeed for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to unlock the grand potential stored within.

This Torah Portion originally appeared on Jan. 2, 2004.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at YULA.