Monday, May 18, 2009

Hours Away ...Obama & Netanyahu

Obama, the realist


At 10:30 this morning Washington time, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu enters the Oval Office for a critical 90-minute meeting with President Barack Obama. That will be followed by a short photo-op and a second session over lunch.

There are those who are hoping Obama will read Netanyahu the riot act over "settlements," press him over the "two-state" issue and tell him that Israel's "privileged relationship" with America is over. Others, who keep insisting they are "pro-Israel," want him to use tough love, to impose a solution - because, supposedly, it's best in the long run.

We're hoping they will discover that Obama is a realist who understands why his predecessors' peace-making efforts failed to end the conflict.

Naturally, Washington and Jerusalem have had policy differences, yet these do not obscure our long-term mutual strategic interests. After a series of meetings with Arab leaders, and after seeing Netanyahu today, Obama should conclude that the reason there has been no breakthrough is principally attributable to Arab intransigence.

But aren't settlements the main obstacle? If only they were. Arab rejectionism predates the issue of settlements by two whole decades.

Israel can hardly dispute the long-standing US contention that settlements complicate peace-making. The State Department issued its first disapproval of "settlement activity" in January 1968, when it criticized the construction of apartment buildings on Mount Scopus and the Sheikh Jarrah areas of east Jerusalem. Nowadays, however, peace-making realists grasp that Israel will under no circumstances uproot neighborhoods and communities that are an organic part of the country.

At the same time, the Jewish state is willing to make painful territorial concessions. Didn't it withdraw from the Sinai peninsula in return for peace with Egypt? And seeing no Palestinian partner for peace, it unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005. The Palestinians could have transformed the Strip into the Singapore of the Mediterranean; instead, it became Hamastan.

And yet, Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 both offered massive territorial concessions in the West Bank and metropolitan Jerusalem - only to be rebuffed.

AS A realist, Obama is unlikely to conflate - as many do - disparate issues. Construction in strategic settlement blocs (such as Ma'aleh Adumim); house demolition in east Jerusalem; "unauthorized outposts," and natural growth in established communities beyond the security barrier must each be understood in its own complexity. Failure to do so is a recipe for deadlock.

We hope Obama will stand behind the March 2004 letter George W. Bush sent to Ariel Sharon (a reiteration of Bill Clinton's policy) making it plain that the 1949 Armistice Lines are not the realistic lines for a final-status agreement.

Everyone pays rhetorical homage to the "two-state" solution. In 1988, the PLO began hinting that it was willing to abandon the destruction of Israel in favor of two states. While the authenticity of this PLO commitment remains debatable, all Israeli premiers from Yitzhak Rabin to Netanyahu have made it plain that Israel does not wish to rule over the Palestinians.

In practice, it is the Palestinians who reject the two-state solution.

Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Olmert's plan for land swaps that would have fast-tracked a two-state solution and provided the Palestinians with the equivalent of 100 percent of West Bank territory (plus a link to Gaza). The hitch? Abbas's obdurate insistence on an Israeli pullback to the hard-to-defend '49 lines, and on the "right" of refugees from the 1948 war, plus millions of their descendents, to settle in Israel.

Given what the Palestinians have done to Gaza, Netanyahu is saying: Before we put anything like Olmert's offer back on the table, let's figure out what kind of sovereignty the Palestinians can be given without Israel's security being endangered. Obama will surely not blame Israelis for not wanting to wake up to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard base looming over Ben-Gurion Airport.

The issue, then, is not how to quickly restart negotiations, but how to avoid past pitfalls. One clear sign that the president is a realist: He's reportedly urging the Arab League to modify its 2002 initiative, transforming it from an unworkable diktat to a genuine peace plan.

That would mean getting real about boundaries, refugees - and, we trust, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

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