First round in the Obama vs Bibi match

SAM LIPSKI

WHAT is Obama really saying? And what is Bibi really saying? Following their speeches – and the body language – as I have been while in Israel, two analogies come to mind: it’s like watching a tennis match, and like studying Parshat Hashavuah, the weekly Torah reading.

As for the tennis example, Israelis are sports mad, much like Australians. So seeing it as a “Bibi versus Obama” game comes naturally to them. I freely admit, however, that the tennis example wasn’t mine, but Zvi Barel’s in Ha’aretz.

Barel said it was too early to add up the points Obama awarded to Israel and to the Palestinians in his May 19 speech.

“We’re still only in the quarter-finals,” said Barel, while noting that Obama’s speech to the pro-Israel lobby’s AIPAC [America Israel Public Affairs Committee] conference, and Bibi’s speech to the Congress were still to come before we’d know “who goes (through) to the final in September”.

Barel continued: “Then the really important game begins, and it won’t only be between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States and Israel will be on one side, with the Palestinians and the rest of the world on the other.”

Basically, I agree. The main game is not this week in Washington. It will be in the months before the UN General Assembly meets in New York in September. For all the disagreements and tensions between Washington and Jerusalem – over perceptions, personalities and policies – the US and Israel are not about to break up their political and strategic alliance.

Specifically, should push come to shove at the United Nations on Palestine, I expect that, as Barel says, “the United States and Israel will be on one side”.

But it may not be as bad as “the Palestinians and the rest of the world on the other”. Whose team, for example, will all the Europeans – East and West – or, for that matter, the Australians and the Canadians, play for?

The truth is that we just don’t know yet. And yes, much may depend on how skilfully Bibi plays his diplomatic cards. So writing this column long before September, and even before Obama and Bibi have given their speeches in Washington, may seem premature.

I hope not. Because I’d like to offer my own analogy – that of studying Parshat Hashavuah – as a way to understand the differing Israeli opinions about Bibi and Obama.

Yes, Israelis are sports mad. But Israel being the Jewish State, the most popular national sport is not basketball or soccer. It’s the one at which Jews have had quite a few millennia of experience. It’s interpreting texts, especially orally transmitted texts. And especially Obama’s.

Now just as the rabbis said there are “70 facets to the Torah”, there are at least “70 facets to Israeli politics”,  which can – and do – change with each hourly news bulletin. But just as the rabbis also gave us the PaRDeS acronym as the key to the Torah’s text, it also helps with Bibi and Obama.

As many AJN readers know, the “P” in PaRDeS (it means “orchard” but that’s another story) stands for “Pshat” – the text’s plain meaning; the “R” is for “Remez”, the hints at the deeper symbolic meaning; the “D” is for “Drash”, the allegorical or metaphorical meaning; and the “S” stands for “Sod”, the secret, mysterious, or mystical meaning.

Space prevents me from going beyond some of the “pshat” reactions to Obama, but just a few of those should convey the flavour.

In the American President’s most contentious remarks, he said: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps …”

The text’s “plain meaning”, according to Likud MP Danny Danon at one extreme, was that “Barack Hussein Obama has adopted Yasser Arafat’s staged plan for Israel’s destruction …”

Danon’s crude comparison to Arafat was just plain daft. But on Israel’s Right, he is far from alone. On Israel’s Left, exemplified by a Ha’aretz editorial (22/05), the plain meaning of Bibi’s remarks is that he’s lying to the Israeli public about Israel’s “indefensible” borders and is endangering national security by threatening the American alliance.

Interestingly, however, despite Bibi’s strongly worded rejection of Obama’s 1967 borders proposal, two of his cabinet ministers, Defence Minister Ehud Barak to his Left, and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to his Right, both played down any differences with Obama and found much to praise in his texts. Go figure.

As always in Israeli politics, you have to venture beyond the text’s “pshat”, its “plain meaning” (which nobody agrees about anyhow), to the hints; even, some would say, to the allegorical, the symbolic, the mysterious and the mystical.

Sam Lipski is the chief executive of The Pratt Foundation and a former editor-in-chief of The AJN.