President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu staged a diplomatic dance in Washington on Tuesday meant to show the world — and their respective constituencies — that they are still in step.
But the carefully choreographed atmospherics belied potential difficulties ahead and many unanswered questions, starting with these: will President Barack Obama stick to his stated goal of moving aggressively on the Israeli-Palestinian front despite a plateful of international and domestic political problems?
And is Netanyahu bluffing when he says his goal is direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, something the Palestinian Authority leadership has so far steadfastly rejected?
“These are two leaders who remain on very different tracks,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv and longtime State Department official. This week’s summit represented “a very strong effort by both sides to cover that up because it does neither any good to fight in public.”
For Netanyahu, the problem remains how to avoid politically costly rows with an administration in Washington that wants to move quickly toward final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians while avoiding new concessions that could blow his fragile right-of-center coalition out of the water, Walker said.
For Obama, there is ongoing tension between his oft-stated goal of breaking the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate — and political realities at home.
“The president has to be thinking about the November elections,” Walker said. “This is not a good time to be fighting with the Israeli prime minister; the Democrats have enough trouble already.”
Still, the administration learned some difficult lessons from its early diplomatic missteps.
“The president does want to set the stage for what comes next; it’s not just political,” Walker said. “But he knows now that there’s not much he can do to move the process forward if he has one of the participants sulking out in the woodshed.”
It is also unclear whether Tuesday’s diplomatic theatrics will be enough to reassure an American Jewish leadership that, while not seeing this administration as anti-Israel, worries that it lacks the warmth of its predecessors.
“What makes this different from other administrations is that while it now wants to work things out quietly with Israel, instead of in public, the president still doesn’t want a public embrace of Israel that puts the U.S. and Israel in one corner, the rest of the world in the other,” said a longtime Middle East analyst who asked not to be identified. “That’s what makes American Jews queasy, and it may continue to do so despite this week’s public reconciliation.”
In sharp contrast to the March meeting, Tuesday’s summit featured all the pomp of meetings between close allies. Netanyahu stayed at Blair House, across Lafayette Square from the White House, not in a hotel; he was hosted for a White House working lunch, and the two leaders sat in the Oval Office for a photo-op and brief news conference; Israel First Lady Sarah Netanyahu enjoyed a White House tea with her American counterpart, Michelle Obama.
Asked by an Israeli reporter about his “distancing” himself from Israel, Obama responded, “The premise of your question was wrong,” and said that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security has been “unwavering.”
In a clear nod to Netanyahu’s oft-stated desire for a quick shift away from indirect “proximity” talks, Obama said, “I believe the prime minister wants peace, two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We expect the proximity talks to lead to direct talks, and there will be a set of confidence-building measures.”
Adding to the positive mood were recent Israeli decisions aimed at addressing U.S. concerns, including an easing of the Gaza blockade and the defeat of a proposal that would give Knesset virtual veto power over any extension of the soon-to-expire West Bank settlement moratorium.
In part, the theatrics of Tuesday’s meetings were aimed at an Israeli public that, polls show, has little faith that Obama cares about their country’s fate, and without whose support no Israeli leader is likely to move forward with U.S.-led peace efforts.
“President Obama botched the Israeli- Palestinian situation by going way out on a limb at the start,” said Robert Lieber, a Georgetown University professor of government, “and by not appreciating the things administrations in both parties have learned over the past 20 years.”
Lieber added that the administration has come to realize that “you need strong actors to make peace,” and is now taking into account the need to factor Netanyahu’s big political problems into its peacemaking plans.
But beyond the positive atmospherics, there are ample reasons for concern about two leaders who are clearly on different tracks when it comes to Middle East peacemaking. What remains to be seen: just how far and how fast is Obama, beset with political, economic and international difficulties, willing to go in pushing the peace process? And how much latitude does Netanyahu have to sidestep plans he believes could bring down his government?
Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), said the administration has “figured out that if you want Israel to do something dangerous, they’ll do it only if it feels somebody’s got their back and that pressure and pounding on the table won’t do it.”
But she said this week’s thaw was mostly a response to the threat that Jewish Democratic voters could sit out the November congressional elections, which “would be devastating for the Democrats.” And she argued that there is still a “huge disconnect” between stronger and closer U.S.-Israel military ties — and an administration that believes it can push Netanyahu to take risks he considers unacceptable — something that may re-emerge after the November elections, she said.
Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official and former U.S. peace process mediator, said that this week’s make-nice session in Washington came about because “Netanyahu realizes that he must demonstrate, as all prime ministers do, that he can effectively manage the U.S.-Israel relationship — that he can stand up to a president, but also be his friend.”
Obama, he said, “has come to the conclusion that testing Israel’s seriousness has to be done not through public rhetoric and confrontation, but creating a real sense of partnership. He is smart enough to understand that he must do due diligence in showing that he understands Israel and its concerns.”
But this week’s summit may represent a “false calm” covering up a still significant “expectations gap,” said Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
The Obama administration still believes it may be the “last administration with a chance to produce a two-state solution,” he said.
And Netanyahu’s oft-stated desire to move quickly to direct negotiations with the Palestinians — seen by some critics as a bluff — could quickly clash with the reality of those negotiations if the Palestinians change their position and agree.
“Direct negotiations will reveal just how large the gap is between them,” Miller said. “The further you go down this process, the more excruciatingly painful it will become.”
“The issue was great for Netanyahu as long as the Palestinians could be blamed for stopping direct talks,” said Walker. “But he will have much bigger problems if they agree; then you’d have the Palestinians pressing for immediate talks on final status issues, and politically, Netanyahu is completely unable to do that.”
Also unclear in the hours after the meeting: was there a meeting of the minds on the issue of Israel’s soon-to-expire moratorium on settlement construction?
Several observers said the evidence — including the very fact of an elaborately staged reconciliation session at the White House — points to a tacit agreement between the two leaders without any public acknowledgment that could topple Netanyahu’s government.
“What I believe happened is a non-deal deal,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The U.S. wants an extension of the moratorium; the Israelis want a move toward direct talks. Maybe what we have here are private understandings to make these things happen without being explicit about them in public.”
But the question remains: will that be sufficient to convince Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to endorse the direct talks Netanyahu and Obama now agree should the next step?
And if direct talks are in the cards, will Netanyahu balk? Longtime Middle East analyst Stephen Cohen thinks he won’t.
“On many of the major issues they’re much closer than people perceive,” Cohen said.
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