For all the major obstacles that remain, last week’s Washington summit, which featured the first direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in 20 months, represented an important step forward.
As was widely reported, the atmospherics at the State Department were positive. President Barack Obama, learning from his early mistakes, made it clear he rejects imposed solutions, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed a willingness to put her reputation and political future on the line by taking a leadership role in the talks.
The administration is to be commended for its intensive and ultimately successful effort to press Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas into returning to direct talks — the only route to an agreement, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted.
Less clear was the administration’s readiness to press Abbas to make critical moves that will demonstrate to a wary Israel that he is serious about these new negotiations — steps such as ending officially sanctioned anti-Israel incitement. Netanyahu has spoken out clearly and strongly about his understanding that both sides will have to make painful compromises along the way; Abbas has not.
For all the positive atmospherics swirling around last week’s meeting, there was one element missing.
Obama remains an object of deep suspicion in Israel and among supporters of the Jewish state. Many Israelis see his willingness to reach out to the Arab and Islamic worlds, but no corresponding desire to speak directly to them. His early focus on a complete settlement freeze suggested to many a one-sided view of the obligations of the parties that reinforced skepticism about whether a negotiated peace can provide real security for the Jewish state along with the creation of a Palestinian one.
Obama’s efforts to restore good working relations with Netanyahu have, by most accounts, been successful, setting the stage for close cooperation as the new peace negotiations unfold.
But without support from the Israeli people, Netanyahu’s options for making those difficult compromises will be limited. And that support will continue to be short supply without a strong effort by the president himself to speak directly to the Israeli people about his hopes and aspirations — and his understanding of their legitimate fears of a one-sided peace that shortchanges their longing for real security.
This isn’t a matter of doing an end-run around Netanyahu. It’s simply a question of making real to ordinary Israelis the support and understanding Obama has apparently conveyed to Netanyahu. What’s missing is an emotional connection between the president and an emotional Israeli public. Without that reassurance, and signal to the Arab world that he is willing to take such a step, last week’s good start could be wasted.