May 17, 2009
The Obama - Netanyahu SummitBy Leo Rennert
Some international summits have a way of arousing heated speculation about dramatic breakthroughs (or breakdowns) but often deliver more prosaic results. This is apt to be the outcome of Monday's White House meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu -- their first since they won their respective national leadership posts.
For weeks, mainstream media have been pushing dire scenarios of presumed differences over Palestinian statehood and other issues apt to create a major confrontation. But in advance of the summit, each side seems to be opting for a less cataclysmic script.
White House officials, feeding reporters material for summit-eve articles, are stressing that Obama is not looking for a fight and will not show his cards until after he engages in similar one-on-one get-togethers with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Mubarak in coming weeks.
On the Israeli side, the word is that Netanyahu is ready to palliate Obama with assurances that removal of illegal outposts will be accelerated and that there will be no new settlements built on his watch -- as was the case when Bibi was prime minister a decade ago.
So what about the expected breach over Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution?
The buzz coming from both sides is that some common ground may be found in reviving George W. Bush's "road map," which envisages an eventual Palestinian state, but only after reciprocal, step-by-step confidence-building measures, including complete dismantling of Palestinian terror groups, an end to anti-Israel incitement in official Palestinian media, schools, textbooks and mosques, and -- on Israel's part -- a "settlement freeze" that may be interpreted differently by Washington and Jerusalem but provide a way of moving forward.
This was exactly the view advanced by Israeli President Shimon Peres on his recent trip to Washington when he told reporters that Netanyahu already has accepted in principle Palestinian statehood by pledging to abide by all previous signed peace agreements, including the "road map."
Whether it's called the "road map" or something else, this would be an agenda consonant with Netanyahu's high-priority insistence during his previous premiership on the need for Palestinian "reciprocity" (i.e. compromises and concessions) to move the peace process forward. As far as the White House is concerned, it would allow Obama to play the role of above-the-fray mediator, pushing both sides to show flexibility and some concrete signs of rapprochement.
In any case, while Netanyahu may point to his adherence to the "road map," he also can be expected to make it clear that he doesn't intend to embrace the Annapolis declaration that Condoleezza Rice pushed at the end of Bush's second term when she upended the "road map" and put Palestinian statehood ahead of an end to Palestinian violence. Instead, the prime minister will try to convince Obama that basic Israeli security is non-negotiable -- a goal more easily achieved via the "road map" or some similar process.
Also, Netanyahu undoubtedly will look for fresh assurances that Washington and the other members of the international Quartet -- the European Union, the UN and Russia -- will continue to isolate Hamas as long as it fails to recognize Israel, end violence, and abide by previous peace agreements and
That still would leave major final-status issues -- Jerusalem, refugees, borders -- for another day. But one summit cannot be expected to solve ingrained differences going back decades.
While the media will be fixated on the Palestinian issue, the more compelling and urgent item on the summit agenda is Iran -- Netanyahu's top priority. The prime minister can be expected to press the president to set a definite time limit -- no later than this fall -- for concrete results from U.S. diplomatic engagement to prevent Tehran from going nuclear before Washington moves to far stiffer sanctions. For his part, Obama may be inclined to leave himself more wiggle room in dealing with Iran, thus keeping Israel guessing and increasingly nervous of whether and how much it can count on the U.S. to thwart Iranian designs.
Privately, probably in separate talks without top aides, Obama will try to get a sense of Israel's determination and seriousness to bomb Iranian nuclear installations, if all other means fail. For his part, Netanyahu probably will tell the president that Israel will keep the military card in reserve, but only for so long. Each may end up with a better understanding of the other's intentions. Or maybe not. While clarity of respective intentions about Iran would be a desirable outcome, the summit could end up leaving each side still guessing about the other's ultimate steps to prevent a nuclear Iran -- a dangerous prospect indeed.
Where the two men are almost certain to disagree about Iran has to do with the Obama administration's linkage of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front with Western attempts to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Team Obama cites this as its prime reason for pushing for a two-state solution, while Netanyahu deems such linkage highly illusory. Along with many other Israelis, he rejects the idea that the advent of a Palestinian state would change Iran's radical extremism.
For Netanyahu a major asset in this debate is the growing consensus among "moderate" Arab states that Iran -- not the Palestinian question -- is the most dangerous and destabilizing threat to the region, as a top State Department diplomat told the Senate this week. In turn, this should allow Netanyahu press for high-priority U.S.-Israel efforts to forge common bonds against Iran with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Sunni regimes in the Persian Gulf.
While this first Netanyahu-Obama summit may generate more questions than answers, it may provide a few clues about the respective influence in shaping U.S. policy of top players in Obama's national security team. Will Secretary of State Clinton be seen as the president's chief foreign-policy adviser or will she be usptaged by Gen. Jones, the president's national security adviser? Who will be more prominent in photo ops? Or will Obama keep everyone guessing?
Of one thing, we can be sure. Mainstream media will do their darndest to cherrypick whatever anti-Bibi crumbs may surface or be bruited about during and after the summit, while these same media will act as virtual Abbas surrogates when the Palestinian leader arrives at the Oval Office.