Editor’s Notes: In the ring with Obama

By David Horovitz May 21, 2009

Netanyahu finds himself with no wiggle room – forced to choose between defying Obama in order to maintain settlement construction, or freezing all building and grappling with immense dissent, at the very least, from domestic rivals.

Don King himself would have been hard-pressed to outdo the pugilistic hype, notably in some Israeli media circles, ahead of Monday’s first White House meeting between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu. Viewers and readers would have been forgiven for anticipating anything up to and including fisticuffs in the Oval Office as the dovish American president and the hawkish Israeli prime minister crossed world views.

So when the two besuited gentlemen sat down for the photographers and the scribes with polite expressions on their faces and no outward signs of bruising, when neither interrupted the other, nobody walked out and a few smiles were even managed, the hysteria dial swung exaggeratedly in the opposite direction.

Setting the tone before Israelis had even seen the press conference, her bubbling drowning out the White House feed, leaving us unable to actually hear the two leaders and forcing us over to Fox News instead, Israel TV’s Ayala Hasson insisted that “you really had to be in the room” to appreciate how momentously warming an occasion it had been, how wonderfully well the two leaders had hit it off, how laboratory-busting that clichéd chemistry had been.

In fact, the pre-meet predictions of full-scale, overt, in-your-face collision were off-mark… but so too, by far, were the post-meet assertions of harmony.

What played out in the White House on Monday was an acutely uncomfortable clash of divergent outlooks in which there could be only one winner. The sanguine world superpower host displayed absolutely no intention of recalibrating the vision that he’d sketched out as he headed toward the White House and has filled in since he got there. And the troubled regional superpower guest, rather than overt confrontation, opted to beat as dignified a retreat as he could muster.

The background briefings and leaks since have only clarified the power play: The new president is said to be bent on pursuing – if not, unprecedentedly, imposing – a very particular Middle East solution, and the new prime minister would do well to prove that he’s part of it.

Undaunted by past failures, Obama is reportedly setting up a hugely ambitious sequence – Israel freezes settlement building, the Arab world begins normalizing relations with Israel, and Israel and the Palestinians then enter substantive talks on a permanent accord for a demilitarized Palestinian state within four years, with no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees to Israel – all of this helping to create wider support for escalated pressure on Iran. If Netanyahu does not play his role, he will find himself at devastating odds with the sole ally on which his country profoundly relies.

WHERE YITZHAK Rabin and Ariel Sharon were regarded by their American presidential counterparts as experienced elder statesmen, and treated with deference, respect and affection, Obama and Netanyahu was a meeting of heavyweight and, let’s kindly say, middleweight, as was clear in the body language and the presentation: Obama, sitting back relaxedly in his chair, was dominant, cool and dispassionate. Netanyahu, in the unaccustomed position of having had some of his arguments rebuffed by his interlocutor, switched from uneasy lecturer, when he leaned forward and looked almost plaintively at the president as he spoke, to subordinate, when he sought to bridge or mask the differences between them, looking down at the floor when his points were weakest.

Appearances apart, the content, on Monday and since, underlined the gulf.
The Netanyahu camp rushed to talk up a purported meeting of minds over Iran, and it has been widely reported in the course of this week that Obama sounded tougher privately than publicly on the need to halt the nuclear drive. But it was Netanyahu’s hope that he would persuade the president of that imperative as a precondition for encouraging Arab moderation and thus enabling progress with the Palestinians, and on this he failed.

Instead, Obama insistently placed tackling the Palestinian issue – which has defeated even the most generous and flexible Israeli governments – on the road to fixing Iran.

In recent years, as Israel has argued internationally that stopping Iran will enable headway with the Palestinians, the response has often been skeptical. It has frequently involved foreign heads of state and senior ministers and diplomats politely suggesting that, perhaps, it is best to try to chivvy both processes along simultaneously. But Obama has gone all the way over to the other side, and done so in public. The linkage “actually runs the other way,” he stated. “Imagine how much less mischief Hizbullah or Hamas could do,” he urged, “if, in fact, we had moved a Palestinian-Israeli track in a direction that gave the Palestinian people hope.”

Imagining is all very well. But then there’s reality. The reality of Ehud Olmert’s desperate effort to “move a Palestinian-Israeli track” in the right direction, to no avail. The reality of Israel leaving Gaza and hope being swallowed by Hamas.

Here, it is not just Netanyahu, but a near-consensus in Israel, that holds that even the warmest-hearted Palestinians will not dare energize a reconciliation with Israel so long as Iran, and by extension Hamas and Hizbullah, are in the ascendant.

If building international, and more specifically regional pressure on Iran is perceived to be contingent on dramatic progress toward resolving our vexed conflict with the Palestinians, the outlook may be bleak indeed. To judge by the fate of Israel’s peace overtures since the early 1990s, the Iranians, one can only fear, would be up to their eyes in enriched uranium before there’s a breakthrough here.

Many Israelis have no particular sympathy for the settlements, and many favor a freeze, which would deny Israel’s critics the claim that our ongoing “land grab” is the root cause of the conflict, and bolster the credibility of Palestinian and Arab parties prepared to press publicly for reconciliation. Far fewer Israelis believe that such a freeze can constitute a peacemaking panacea.

In part, that’s a consequence of the experience of the early 1990s, when the Rabin government froze all government-funded construction in the territories even before the Oslo accords were signed; peace was conspicuous by its absence. It’s also because uprooting the entire settlement enterprise in Gaza yielded not reconciliation, or even calm, but that extremist elephant in the room named Hamas. It’s because of the Palestinian Authority’s intransigence to date and the PA’s self-acknowledged incapacity to effectively control areas from which Israel might consider pulling back.

Nonetheless, Obama evidently believes a settlement freeze can at least begin to change the entire current negative dynamic. And so Netanyahu now finds himself with no wiggle room – forced to choose between defying Obama and maintaining construction in Judea and Samaria, if only for natural growth, or freezing all West Bank building and grappling with immense dissent, at the very least, from domestic rivals, some of them deep within his government.

If Olmert were still prime minister, he would doubtless have acquiesced to Obama, and Netanyahu would most likely have been leading the angry criticism. If Netanyahu acquiesces, what will become of the Likud, and would Kadima rush to his rescue? If Netanyahu acquiesces…

Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s immediate response to the word from Washington was to reiterate to settler leaders that illegal outposts would have to go – by consent or by force. On the other hand, the former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, noting on Tuesday that “Netanyahu was completely silent on the settlements freeze in public,” added tellingly, “In private, I’m told, he said it would be difficult to do.”

Perhaps Netanyahu believes he can keep the most passionate settlement camp happy while simultaneously keeping Obama off his back. His former ambassador to the US, Zalman Shoval, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that “based on our experience from the past, with goodwill, both sides can make an effort to find constructive or creative solutions to this issue.”

Really? When Hillary Clinton follows up the White House session by telling Al-Jazeera unequivocally, “We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth – any kind of settlement activity,” and the State Department takes the trouble to release a transcript of the interview?

A week before Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993, above roars of “Rabin is a traitor” from a vast crowd at a demonstration in Jerusalem, opposition leader Netanyahu vowed, “We can overcome Peres and Rabin.”

If he so much as consents in principle to Obama’s framework, Netanyahu knows he risks becoming the focus of that kind of anger. But if he does not, what becomes of Israel’s vital relationship with the US, its international alliances, its regional ties, and the backing it seeks in order to face down the threat from Iran?

THE SPECIFICS of Obama’s Middle East plan will become clearer as the president first hosts Mahmoud Abbas, then Hosni Mubarak in the next few days, and then travels to Cairo to reach out in earnest to the Muslim world.

But the president and his advisers seem to have taken on board Netanyahu’s concerns about a fully sovereign Palestine constituting a military threat to Israel; hence the reported goal of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

That stance underlines the error of Netanyahu’s public refusal to endorse even the principle of a two-state solution. His objections to a Palestine that, if unconstrained, could import arms, build military alliances and constitute a grave danger to Israel are legitimate, indeed. His adamant opposition to statehood, however, has left him perceived not just as stubborn but foolishly so, and cannot have helped his credibility on other vital matters.

The division of mandatory Palestine was predicated on the establishment of a Jewish and an Arab entity – an arrangement Israel’s leaders accepted and the Arab world did not. In the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s spring 2007 survey, Palestinian respondents still said, by 77 to 16 percent, they felt that “the rights and needs of the Palestinian people cannot be taken care of as long as the State of Israel exists.”

It is Palestinian intransigence that is the biggest obstacle to their own independent state. In allowing his government to be depicted as the holdout, when he himself genuinely does not seek to govern the Palestinians, Netanyahu has needlessly shifted the focus away from that crucial Palestinian obligation to come to terms with Israel as the Jews’ sovereign homeland.

IF CANDIDATE Obama’s outlook remains unchanged today, a further central aspect of his vision can also be predicted.

Interviewed by this writer in Jerusalem last July, Obama underlined the accuracy of Olmert’s contention that George W. Bush was the ideal president under whose watch to try hard to make peace, because, uniquely, Bush envisioned a permanent Israel with borders more defensible than the narrow pre-1967 lines.

Asked whether Israel has a right to try and maintain a presence in the West Bank, for security, religious, historic or other reasons, and whether he thought of Israel in its final-status incarnation on the basis of “67-plus,” Obama responded that “both sides on this equation are going to have to make some calculations.”

He elaborated: “Israel may seek ’67-plus’ and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party. The Palestinians are going to have to make a calculation: Are we going to fight for every inch of that ’67 border or, given the fact that 40 years have now passed, and new realities have taken place on the ground, do we take a deal that may not perfectly align with the ’67 boundaries?

“My sense,” Obama went on, “is that both sides recognize that there’s going to have to be some give. The question from my perspective is can the parties move beyond a rigid, formulaic or ideological approach and take a practical approach that looks at the larger picture and says, ‘What’s going to be the best way for us to achieve security and peace?’”

Though his position on two-states will unquestionably have struck Obama as “rigid, formulaic or ideological,” Netanyahu insists he’s ready to get practical – most urgently through bolstering the West Bank economy and encouraging the further US-overseen training of Palestinian security personnel.

Obama will have no problem with any of that… provided it is combined with that settlement freeze.

© The Jerusalem Post