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.