Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Day After...

Washington summit

The long-awaited summit between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama finally took place yesterday - carrying on for considerably longer than scheduled. When it was over, both men came out smiling and exchanging compliments. Obama affirmed that the "special relationship" the two countries share is alive and well.

That tells us little about how things really went inside on the critical topic of Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. It tells us nothing about whether the president was privately persuaded that peace-making with the Palestinians has been made unworkable because Fatah and Hamas are bitterly polarized, and because even the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas has yet to abandon maximalist demands about boundaries and the so-called right of return. Nor do we know if Obama will press Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is whether the two men - whatever their earlier prejudices - now feel that they can trust each enough to collaborate. Though Obama and Netanyahu had their "blink" moment in July 2008 at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Monday's was their first lengthy and substantive get-together.

Obama has had greater exposure to the Palestinian "narrative" than previous presidents. Speaking to reporters after their meeting, he talked of the humanitarian situation in Gaza in the same breath as he recalled the security situation in Sderot. It would have been more helpful for him to note that Gaza would not be suffering deprivations if it wasn't led by a violent Islamist movement that uses the territory to attack Israel.

Regardless of what was said publicly yesterday, the question is whether Obama appreciates the distinction between a Netanyahu who is reluctant to foster the establishment of what could quickly devolve into Hamas-led "Palestine" on the West Bank, and a Netanyahu who is an "obstacle to peace." The two are not synonymous. Most Israelis do not have to be convinced that the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state (initially with limited sovereignty) is a clear Israeli interest. That's why the Netanyahu government is already reportedly holding discreet talks with Abbas's people on renewing negotiations.

Yet Netanyahu critics in Washington, along with the faux pro-Israel community, have been urging Obama to push for Israeli concessions on settlements as the perceived key obstacle, though they can't help but admit that the Palestinians are paralyzed by divisions and have been unwilling to accept Israel's viable proposals for reconciliation. Still, goes their reasoning, if it looks like the administration is not leaning on Israel, that "could turn opinion against Obama across the region." The question is whether Obama has himself accepted this argument.

Obama emphasized America's continuing commitment to a two-state solution, while Netanyahu said that if the two sides made progress the "terminology would take care of itself." The premier also reiterated that Israel has no wish to rule over the Palestinians and that they must rule themselves. He said he wanted to move the negotiating process along so that the two peoples could live side-by-side. Obama emphasized the road map and the obligations both sides have in fulfilling it, including a halt to settlements - a long-standing US demand.

ON IRAN the president said that America was committed to Israel's security and agreed that Iranian nuclear weapons were a threat not just to Israel, but to the US and to regional stability. Obama said he would not place a deadline on talks aimed at persuading Teheran that it is not in its interest to pursue nuclear weapons, but that obviously they could not drag on forever, and that he expected results this year. He earlier told Newsweek that the US is not taking any options off the table with respect to Iran.

Obama emphasized making progress on the Palestinian track, but in no way played down the looming menace from Iran. Netanyahu emphasized the threat from Teheran, but also said he was ready to "immediately" resume talks with the Palestinians. What was perhaps most surprising was the firmness with which Obama stressed a sequence - progress on the Palestinian front on the route to stopping Iran - so at odds with Netanyahu's view.

In the coming weeks, the president will be meeting in Washington with Abbas and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. After that, he will deliver a special address to the Muslim world from Cairo. Then we will we have a clearer picture of where the new administration is heading.

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