July 6 Post-Game Report
After a short hour and 19 minute meeting at the White House, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were quick to embrace one another in front of reporters, showing the world that they have both decided to change their rhetoric towards one another and work together on a common goal of Middle East peace.
Like I said a few days ago before the meeting took place, this is precisely what the bilateral event was designed for. After a tumultuous eighteen months between Israel and its greatest ally (the United States)- including disagreements over Israel’s behavior with respect to the Palestinians- Obama’s staff made sure that this diplomatic exchange went as smoothly as possible. You may recall that the last U.S.-Israel meeting did not go very well…it went so badly, in fact, that the President deliberately kept the Israeli Prime Minister waiting in the lobby for a few hours and even refused to hold a joint news conference after the talk was completed.
Three months later, Obama’s mindset towards Israel and its Prime Minister has changed dramatically. The midterm elections are fast approaching, and the last thing Obama wants to do is jeopardize his party by appearing to be anti-Israeli. Plus, Republicans in recent months have been all over the President on his Middle East policy, accusing him of compromising U.S. security interests and letting his grudge with Netanyahu get too far. Given this atmosphere, the White House probably viewed this meeting as a political opportunity to show his solidarity with Israel in the hopes of stemming this criticism and shoring up Jewish support for Democrats ahead of the vote.
On the other side, Netanyahu faces a similar, yet different, domestic situation on the cusp of his Washington visit. He has been taking a beating from the international community, dovish Israeli political parties, and Arab leaders for his terrible track record at peace talks, whether this includes brandish statements towards the Palestinian leadership or actual policy moves that have weakened Palestinian trust. His endorsement of Israeli settlement building on occupied Palestinian land- which the international community deems illegal under international law- has driven a deep wedge between Israel and its greatest ally, donor, and patron. Israelis critical of Netanyahu were (and continue to be) afraid that his reliance on right-wing politicians has damaged Israeli credibility in the eyes of the region and in the eyes of the international community. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren suggested as much a month ago, arguing that a “tectonic” shift is taking place between Washington and Tel Aviv on a number of important issues.
So both leaders had reasons for shaking hands and smiling in front of the cameras today. Both men, regardless of their experience, are confronting political pressures in their home countries. Netanyahu is hearing it from Jewish peace activists, and Republicans in the peanut gallery are heckling Obama. This could help explain why the U.S.-Israel meeting went without incident. Obama stated compassionately that he always had trust in Netanyahu, despite what the press had said, and that the U.S.-Israel relationship is stronger than it has ever been. Netanyahu returned the favor by endorsing Obama’s vision for a two-state solution to the conflict…something that he previously opposed.
But logistics and sugarcoating aside, the July 6 meeting still didn’t bridge the United States and Israel when it comes to policy. President Obama’s plan for a two-state solution depends primarily on the termination of Israeli settlement building, and a willingness by Netanyahu to show the Palestinians that he is serious about peace talks. This runs right into Netanyahu’s strategy, which is both pro-settler and hawkish in its origins. It’s one thing to say that you would like a quick and smooth end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Netanyahu has expressed. But it’s quite another to actually progress towards that goal. Given his dependency on right-wing parties, I’m still not sure if Netanyahu is willing to sacrifice his political career for a successful Israeli-Palestinian resolution.
However, one thing is clear; if Israel refuses to renew its ban on new settlement building this September, all of this talk of peace is meaningless.
By the way, Obama declared that he wants Israelis and Palestinians to stop acting like children and address one another directly in just a few weeks time. But it’s hard to see this actually happening, both because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is opposed to the idea as long as settlement construction continues, and because Palestinian negotiators are afraid that concrete issues (like security, borders, Jerusalem) will remain off the table.
-Daniel R. DePetris