What Bibi's "They Hate Us for Our Freedom" Moment at AIPAC Means for the Obama Meeting

Let's just get it out of the way right off that bat that Al Qaeda madmen don't actually want to blast through bridges, skyscrapers, and subways in righteous protest of the First Amendment. It's mind-boggling that politicians still consider this nonsense an effective enough talking point as to employ it in their keynote speeches to national audiences. Until, that is, you realize they usually only bring it up when they're after something else.

That's precisely what was going on in Bibi Netanyahu's speech last night at the AIPAC conference. Rejecting the Obama administration's critiques of his settlement policies, Bibi gave a defiant speech blaming the breakdown of the peace process entirely on the Palestinians, pledging to give no ground on Jerusalem (literally), insisting on his right to maintain troops on the far border of any eventual Palestinian state, and evoking Iran's chest-thumping as an imminent second Holocaust. The real kicker came right at the end of the speech:

Our soldiers and your soldiers fight against fanatic enemies that loathe our common values. In the eyes of these fanatics, we are you and you are us. To them, the only difference is that you are big and we are small, you are the Great Satan and we are the Little Satan. This fanaticism's hatred of Western civilization predates Israel's establishment by over one thousand years. Militant Islam does not hate the West because of Israel. It hates Israel because of the West. Because it sees Israel as an outpost of freedom that prevents them from overrunning the Middle East. When Israel stands against its enemies, it stands against America's enemies.

This argument is to reason as nails scratching on a chalkboard are to ears. No, worse--ten years worth of nails scratching on a chalkboard. Laura Rozen had it right when she called it a Cheney-esque view of the world, bifurcated into squads of good and evil, the evil ones united in manic opposition to all outposts of freedom around the world. Not to rehash every War on Terror debate that's taken place over the last decade, but let's just assume for a moment that the most extreme example of the "militant Islam" he's referencing is Al Qaeda. A quick glance at Osama Bin Laden's inaugural from 1996 reveals otherwise:

My Muslim Brothers (particularly those of the Arab Peninsula): The money you pay to buy American goods will be transformed into bullets and used against our brothers in Palestine and tomorrow (future) against our sons in the land of the two Holy places. By buying these goods we are strengthening their economy while our dispossession and poverty increases.

Muslims Brothers of land of the two Holy Places: It is incredible that our country is the world largest buyer of arms from the USA and the area biggest commercial partners of the Americans who are assisting their Zionist brothers in occupying Palestine and in evicting and killing the Muslims there, by providing arms, men and financial supports.

Say what you will about the delusional logic and abhorrent inhumanity of Al Qaeda's manifesto. But after a decade of hearing about their ideology, we should all be on the same page by now in recognizing that a hatred of freedom is not what motivates these guys. They see Israel not as an "outpost of freedom," as Bibi argues, but as a violent, imperialist military oppressor--and they see America as its equally imperialist military backer, among other nasty things. That's a big PR problem, when you consider that this view is widely held in the Arab world (though it should go without saying that the overwhelming majority of its residents wouldn't dream of drawing the same conclusions as Al Qaeda on what to do about it). It's a view shared by Hamas. But that's where the similarities between the two end; Al Qaeda, the enemy America is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is wholly different from Hamas, whose focus is squarely on Israel (and has shown little tolerance for Al Qaeda-affiliated groups). To conflate the two is ridiculous.

Since a democratic bulwark against a grand Islamist conspiracy not actually what's tying the U.S. and Israel together, then there's a more fundamental tension underlying these absurd culturally reductionist arguments: to what extent do U.S. and Israeli interests actually overlap? In geopolitics, "friendships" are never just friendships--they're about interests. With that in mind, Stratfor has a smart take on each party's cost-benefit analysis: in a nutshell, that Israel sees an opportunity to better its interests by taking a hard line on settlements and peace negotiations, while the United States sees an unnecessary risk that only hurts its interests. In refusing to budge on the settlements issue, Bibi was essentially thumbing his nose at America's interests, telling the Obama administration he'd rather figure things out on his own than accept security assurances with terms attached.

But let's get back to that whole "hate us for our freedom" thing. In pinning "militant Islam's" hatred of Israel on Israel's affiliation with the West, Bibi was trying to rally his allies on the American right to get Obama to offer those assurances without any terms--even though Obama's team has determined that doing so would harm American interests vis-a-vis Iraq, Iran, and the entire balance of power in the Middle East. To do so, Bibi employed the Cheney-esque argument that has worked so well with American audiences for the last decade. And this is where I think he's miscalculated: it doesn't work anymore. Not for Americans (as I explore here), and certainly not for the U.S. government.

As I click publish, Obama and Netanyahu are beginning their much-anticipated meeting at the White House. I expect Obama recognizes the cards his counterpart played at AIPAC last night and is pushing back mighty hard right now.