Obama stands up to Netanyahu

President Obama stood up to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in his Middle East speech, in which he defied the conventional wisdom, which holds that all efforts towards a peace settlement with the Palestinians are now at a standstill.

The fact is, though, he had to. Obama couldn’t let Netanyahu dictate the terms of the debate while in Washington, where the prime minister will address AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and Congress in the next few days. Nor could Obama wait until he spoke to AIPAC himself on Sunday, and miss the opportunity of a global audience that he had today.

He didn’t break new ground, but he did seem to be suggesting that the Israelis and Palestinians should try to hammer out a deal on territory and security while setting aside the poisonous issues of the fate of Jerusalem and of the Palestinian refugees.

It’s worth restating what Obama said about the principles for such a deal, which he said should be based on 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps, and that the Palestinians should have a “sovereign and contiguous” state. But he also warned the Palestinians that the “symbolic” action they plan at the U.N. General Assembly in September to seek statehood would fail.

So Bibi will now have to respond to Obama, who throughout this week had let the rumors fly that the resignation of his envoy George Mitchell meant that the peace process was dead. Netanyahu did not mention 1967 borders in his speech this week to the Knesset.

Some will think Obama naïve for trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, and he will probably gain little credit in the region, where the overriding view is that the United States is weak. But at least he is prepared to give it one more shot. When he says the status quo is unsustainable, he is right.

In responding to the Arab Spring, Obama has had to contend with Israel resisting change among its neighbors, first Egypt and now Syria. But Israel is not the only conservative force in the region; Saudi Arabia and Iran are also fearful of the turmoil’s effects. What particularly struck me in Obama’s speech was how he listed by name every single state with a potential for change except for one glaring omission — that longstanding U.S. ally, oil-rich Saudi Arabia.