A slightly different version of this was published at Comment is Free.
Quite a disappointing first White House meeting between Bibi Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Each seemed to reiterate the standard rhetoric and pretty much talk past each other. There was one area, Iran, in which Obama seemed to move closer to the Israeli position. The president seems to have adopted an articulation favored by Iran envoy Dennis Ross and the Israelis, by which Iran will be given until the end of the year to accede to demands that it renounce its nuclear program. If it does not do so, then in the next phase the U.S. will advocate harsher penalties and sanctions. The final phase, of course, will be military action.
In a pre-meeting interview, Obama even conceded a military solution could not be ruled out:
Israelis have been intently parsing Mr. Obama’s language for any sign that he might ultimately be supportive if Israel declared that Iranian nuclear progress left it no choice but to attack. In the Newsweek interview, Mr. Obama was asked how he would talk to Mr. Netanyahu about the possibility of Israeli military action against Iran, and whether he was keeping all options open.
“I don’t take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period,” the president said.
This will delight the Israeli intelligence-military echelons who are itching for an Iran attack. It is no different than the policy of the previous administration. But Bush’s approach to Iran was so belligerent, that many had hoped for a muscular response from Obama that rejected or at least minimized the possibility of a military attack.
I’ve written previously here about an intense perception management campaign waged in the U.S. by Israel to prepare the ground for such an Israeli attack. Israeli diplomats and intelligence officers intimately involved with such a project will see Obama’s pronouncements as a clear victory.
During his remarks, Netanyahu clasped his hands together prayerfully as if to reinforce the the American president how sincere he was in his belief in peace. It came across to me as slightly obsequious, the mark of a vassal beseeching his master. But I cannot see any area in which Netanyahu reached out to the U.S. position. He refused to use the phrase “two state solution.” Instead he said:
“I want to make clear we do not want to govern the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said today. But he did not mention a Palestinian state as the ultimate goal of future negotiations. For peace talks to begin, he said, the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and “allow Israel the means to defend itself,” a phrase that is often code for territorial concessions in the West Bank.
“We are ready to do our share,” said Netanyahu, who took office at the end of March at the head of a fragile and sharply hawkish governing coalition. “We hope the Palestinians are willing to do their share as well.”
If you consider the fact that Bibi had withdrawn the demand for Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, the fact that he’s raised it anew cannot be seen as a good sign. This is Bibi the wooden, tin-eared ideologue, not the pragmatist who would endorse a two-state solution that Ehud Barak promised us a few days ago.
Obama did restate his support for a two state solution and call for a settlement freeze. But there was absolutely no response from Bibi. It’s as if the words were never spoken. This is the Israeli modus operandi. They hear the words they want to hear and disregard whatever is inconvenient.
The next few weeks bring Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Mahmoud Abbas to Washington and take Obama to Cairo, where he will make a major address to the world’s Muslims about relations between Islam and the west. Frankly, I’d hoped that the president would come out of today’s meeting with an agenda which he could build on in these future initiatives. But I see no momentum, no set of ideas on which he can build based on today’s developments. He will have to go to Cairo and start all over in order to build any consensus with the Arab world.
Obama did indirectly endorse the Saudi 2002 peace initiative. But he did so in such a way that Bibi could also embrace the sentiment, which means it was quite an insubstantial reference:
Obama and Netanyahu expressed a desire today to bring other Arab nations into any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The tactic has been tried before without results.
…The administration is counting on Mubarak, an autocratic ruler unpopular in his own country but an important regional player, to lobby Arab nations in favor of recognizing Israel, perhaps through a modified Arab peace proposal that softens the so-called right of return.
…Netanyahu today said he welcomed more Arab participation to “buttress” future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Obama said “there’s an extraordinary opportunity here” for greater involvement by Arab states, which he said are “looking to break the long-standing impasse, but not sure how to do it.”
“The Palestinians are going to have to do a better job of providing the security Israel needs to accept a two-state solution,” Obama said. “The other Arab states have to be more supportive and be bolder in seeking potential normalization with Israel,” adding that “I will deliver that message to” Mubarak and Abbas next week.
I thought it took a heap of chutzpah to call on Palestinians to provide Israel security, and for Arabs to recognize Israel without mentioning an Israeli withdrawal to pre-67 boundaries. Instead, Obama merely called for a settlement freeze. If you weigh Obama’s priorities, you will see that he demanded much from the Arab side and very little from the Israeli side, which is what we’ve become used to expecting from most American presidents.
But all is not lost. This is a first skirmish in a long struggle for Israeli-Arab peace. No one expected Bibi would make this easy for the Americans. There will be many more battles to come in which Obama will have a chance to make his mark.
I still maintain that ultimately, Obama’s leadership combined with the historical weight of this conflict will militate toward agreement. It may not happen with Bibi, who I believe is little more than a recalcitrant puppet of the Israeli hard-right. But perhaps, as happened with Yitzchak Shamir, who was driven from office when he proved unable to work successfully with George H.W. Bush, Bibi will be swept from power and a more pragmatic leader will take the reins who will see more eye to eye with the American president. At any rate, the unremitting pressure of a U.S. administration that demands Israel come to agreement with her neighbors will prove more than any resistant Israeli politician can bear. Peace will come.
You expect vastly too much…too soon. Obama is not yet done getting all his ducks in a row with his pending speech to the Arab world, personal confabs with Mubarak and Abbas, let alone an Iranian election that will inform him where he stands exactly with Tehran.
You also make too much of this character Ross, who may just as likely be a witless cipher into the Israeli Lobby and Tel Aviv. And Obama had not promised ‘military action’ at the end of the year. He clearly stated and affirmed that the policy of dialog will be “reviewed” at that time. I would also say its not a bad idea to remind the Persians Obama’s offer of rapprochement isn’t an eternal fruit that can be plucked whenever it suits a Mullah’s fancy.
I had not expected anything earth shattering out of this meeting. Both reiterated their previous positions. Early analysis by IPF and others remarked this meeting lasted longer than planned and was marked by a lot of tension. It should also be remembered that its Mitchell who in the final analysis will be the driver ramming Obama’s I/P agenda, whom Israelis and Palestinians are principally going to have to deal with. That’s what proconsuls are for.
There have been lots of disappointments, especially these past 8 years when the stupidest man in the universe sat in the US presidency. You can be assured there will be more. But Obama has already passed the point of no return on this issue. He has clearly stated I/P peace and a two state solution is a vital US national security interest in the region.
This diplomatic dance will be taking off soon enough, and I suggest everyone have their seat belts in hand when it does.
Ira Glunts says
I think you really nailed it here. Congratulations. I hope your analysis will he picked up around the Net.
Richard Silverstein says
Well, at least my editor at Comment is Free has discerning editorial judgment.
But there was, louder than words: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1086339.html
Isn’t the ostensible reason Netanyahu is lobbying for a green light to an Israeli attack on Iran the alleged danger to Israel’s (not the US’) security?
And I’ll bet the farm that “green light” never comes.
But perhaps, as happened with Yitzchak Shamir, who was driven from office when he proved unable to work successfully with George H.W. Bush, Bibi will be swept from power and a more pragmatic leader will take the reins who will see more eye to eye with the American president.
Actually there is a historical precedent for this. Netanyahu was swept out of office in 1999 and succeeded by THREE Israeli Prime Ministers who were in office for a total of 10 years, each of which was committed to the “2-state solution”, yet none of them succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. So even if Netanyahu is ousted once again, why should things end up any different?
Regarding the settlement freeze…..the media has been filled with reports since the meeting of Obama with King Abdullah of Jordan stating that Obama is working towards a regional peace deal. Figuring that the Palestinians are not strong enough to make the necessary concessions to Israel in order to close a deal, Obama wants the rest of the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia to take the initiative and offer some tangible example of the peace they are supposedly offering in the Saudi-Arab Peace Plan we keep hearing about, prior to completing negotiations. Speculation was that Israel would be allowed to open interest sections in the Arab countries, and they would allow Israeli travelling on Israeli passports to enter the countries. In return, Israel would be expected to reciprocate with something like a complete settlement freeze. If this is the case, we will not see a repeat of the Bush I’s policies of demanding Israeli concessions, such as the settlement freeze, up front, but such a concession would come as a result of Obama’s pushing both sides to simultaneous concessions which would then presumably pave the way to a final agreement. If this is correct, don’t except a public hectoring of Israel from Obama, but rather quiet diplomacy.
History can also be a great deceiver to those who unwisely and uncritically seek the affirmation or guidance of past precedents for their time. The Middle East as well as the global geo-political environment are two vastly different realities either side of 19 March 2003. What worked or didn’t work under past leaders is no guarantee such means, methods or policies will work for today’s or tomorrows leaders.
The irrevocable consequences of the strategic disasters the US has and for sometime will continue to suffer, is forcing paradigm shifts in US foreign policy as the US appraises and takes stock of its evolving national security interests in the Middle East. Retrenchment and rapprochement with enemies are the policies and the means of the US for the foreseeable future.
Israel also is in a similar boat due to being a chief conspirator, aider and abettor in that ‘strategic disaster,’ and can no more escape the consequences of their stupidity than the US. What remains to become known is whether the Israelis can save themselves or become a footnote in world history. Like it or not, the two state solution is the only path to Israels survival in the Middle East, while the one state scenario at this precise point in time, no matter how imagined or by whom, spells not just the end of the Zionist project but also a Jewish home in Palestine.