The following is by Meretz USA board member, Robert O. Freedman. Dr. Freedman is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Among his publications are: Israel In the Begin Era, Israel Under Rabin, and,most recently, Contemporary Israel: Domestic Politics,Foreign Policy And Security Challenges (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2008).
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu met US President Barak Obama on Monday, May 18th, there were a number of issues on the table for discussion, including questions about Netanyahu’s willingness to accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s building of settlements and settlement outposts on the West Bank, and, of course, what to do about Iran. In addition, there was the question of rapport between the two leaders, one on the right wing of the political spectrum and the other on the left wing. While the meeting, which lasted 30 minutes longer than expected, did not solve any of the issues being discussed, it may have established a positive working relationship between the two leaders, both of whom are at the beginning of their incumbencies.
Obama made a number of gestures to Israel and to the American Jewish Community to set a positive tone for the meeting. Thus the United States refused to participate in the Durban II anti-racism conference because it appeared to be taking an anti-Israeli position. This decision involved some political cost to Obama because the Congressional Black Caucus was pushing for the US to participate. In addition, The US Justice Department dropped its four year old case against two ex-AIPAC staffers, Keith Weissman and Steven Rosen who had been accused in 2005 on the very vague charge that they had conspired to disclose national defense information to those not authorized to receive it. The fact that the case was dropped on the eve of the annual AIPAC conference in Washington could only be seen as another gesture to Israel and to the American Jewish Community. Finally, in the press conference following the meeting, it appeared that Obama went out of his way to flatter Netanyahu, praising his “political skills” and “historical vision”
While these gestures were important, the fact remains that Netanyahu is a right- of- center Israeli politician and Obama is a left- of- center American one, and there is a real question as to how they will get along in the long run. Gone are the warm personal relations between the conservative politicians George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, and between the slightly left of center politicians Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin. Indeed, Netanyahu faced a similar problem when he was Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999, when he had to deal with Clinton. Fortunately for Netanyahu at that time, he had the support of the Republican-dominated US Congress, and for most of the Netanyahu period, Clinton was bogged down with the Monica Lewinsky affair. Netanyahu has no such cover this time. Obama is a very popular US President with a strong Democratic Party majority in both houses of Congress, so Netanyahu’s room for maneuver is much more limited. The most Netanyahu can hope for, if he chooses to stonewall on the peace process, is that Obama will be so bogged down with the problems of the US economy and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan that he will have little time to devote to the Middle East peace process.
ISSUES FOR DISCUSSION
1. The Two State Solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict: Obama has been pushing hard for Israel to accept the two-state solution, and he did so again in the post-meeting press conference. Vice-President Joe Biden, in recent comments to the AIPAC conference stated that: “Israel has to work for a two-state solution… The status quo of the last decade has not served the interests of either the United States or Israel very well.” Netanyahu made no formal committment to a two-state solution his meeting with Obama, and the Israeli government has been arguing that with Hamas controlling Gaza and a weak and corrupt Mahmud Abbas running the West Bank, the time is not right for the creation of a Palestinian State
2. Settlements and settlement outposts: Obama, as many US Presidents before him is strongly opposed to the expansion of settlements and the construction of settlement outposts, and he made this very clear during the press conference. The US government has been arguing that the expansion of the settlements takes away land that the Palestinians want for their state, and causes despair among the Palestinians. As Biden told AIPAC, “You’re not going to like me saying this, but don’t build more settlements,.dismantle existing (settlement) outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement”. Perhaps as a gesture to Obama, immediately upon his return to Israel, Netanyahu ordered the settlement outpost of Maoz Esther destroyed, but whether he will prevent it from being rebuilt, as other destroyed settlement outposts have been, remains to be seen.
3. Iran: This is perhaps the most difficult of the issues which the two leaders face. Obama has been trying to use diplomacy to get the Iranian leadership to cease enriching uranium and answer IAEA(International Atomic Energy Agency) questions about their nuclear weaponization program. For their part, the Israelis claim that the Iranian leaders are stalling, and will continue to string out the US in the talks until their nuclear weaponization program is completed. On this issue, Obama’s proposed deadline of the end of 2009,would appear to be an important gesture to Netanyahu.
A related question is the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Some in the Obama Administration have been pressing Israel to sign the agreement so as to have its nuclear facilities inspected. The idea here seems to be that were Israel to sign, Iran would have one less excuse for its stalling. The problem from the Israeli perspective is that until Israel is at peace with all of its neighbors, including Iran, Israel needs its nuclear program as a deterrent against those countries, and especially Iran, that have sworn to destroy it.
Finally, in relation to Iran there is the question of timing. Netanyahu has been pushing for an Iran-first policy, arguing that if the Iranian nuclear program can be halted, that would weaken Hamas and Hezbollah which are enemies of both Israel and the peace process. The Obama Administration has countered that if there were a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace process underway, it would weaken the appeal of Iran to the Sunni “Arab Street,” and thus facilitate the peace process, a point Obama repeated during the press conference.
4. The Arab Peace Plan: The Obama Administration has been praising parts of the Arab Peace Plan, which basically calls for Arab State recognition of Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 war boundaries and a “just” settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. The Israelis object not only to a complete withdrawal, which would conflict with Israel’s need for “secure borders” as noted in UN Resolution 242, but also to the Arab interpretation of the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem which involves the return of the refugees to Israel, not to a Palestinian State on the West Bank and Gaza. The Obama Adminstration has been pushing the Arabs to agree to aspects of normalization before a full Israeli withdrawal, but the Arab World is split on this with Jordan favoring the US idea and Syria opposing it.
5. Arab recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”: While Netanyahu has agreed not to push for this as a prerequisite for negotiations to begin, he wants it as part of a final agreement, as he made clear at the press conference. The Arabs, citing the 20% non-Jewish Arab minority in Israel oppose it. To Netanyahu, this is a case of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state and Israel’s acceptance in the Middle East, so it will be interesting to see if the US is willing to expend any political capital to try to bring the Arabs around to the Israeli position on this.
6. US aid to a Palestinian national unity government that includes Hamas representatives: Netanyahu has been opposing such aid because it would serve to legitimize Hamas, even as the organization continues to refuse to recognize Israel and calls for Israel’s destruction. The US has gone back and forth on this issue, and Congressional pressure has limited Obama’s flexibility on it. While at the present time this is just an academic question because Hamas and Fatah are far from forming a national unity government, the issue may well come up in the not-too-distant future.
In sum, Obama and Netanyahu began their dialogue on these key problems during their 18 May meeting in Washington. Whether they will succeed in solving them, however, remains to be seen.