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May 18, 2009
The Obama-Netanyahu Summit
Juding from their public remarks, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are moving cautiously to set new directions for Mideast peace -- without seeking any immediate Washington-Jerusalem consensus. If the summit produced anything, it has tended to soften presumed policy differences between Netanyahu and Obama.
The president still is biding his time pending upcoming meetings with Egyptian President Mubarak and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Nevertheless, Obama made clear that his Mideast strategy is based on nudging all the major regional players -- Iran, Israel, the Palestinians, and Arab leaders -- to do some heavy lifting of their own.
In a new signal to Tehran, Obama warned that his reliance on diplomatic engagement is not open-ended. While unwilling to set an artificial deadline for talks with Iranian leaders, the president said he expects a positive response to his efforts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by the end of the year. "We're not going to have talks forever," he remarked. And if there's no progress, Obama held out the prospect of a "clear timetable" to toughen sanctions.
That's less than Netanyahu might have hoped in terms of Israel's preference for a shorter deadline for talks to produce real results before the U.S. moves to put some "sticks" into play, alongside its "carrots." But it's not an unbridgeable gap, especially if Tehran keeps cold-shouldering Obama's diplomatic overtures. And Bibi showed no reticence in reminding the president that never before have Arabs and Israelis seen a common threat the way they view Iran's push for regional hegemony and its rapidly progressing nuclear program.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Obama told the prime minister that he has a "historic opportunity to get a serious movement" in peace talks with the Palestinians without delay. The president, stressing his support for Palestinian statehood, said he hopes he can achieve this objective by the end of his current term. And to get the ball rolling, he called on Israel to take "some difficult steps," like putting the brakes on settlements. "We have to make progress on settlements," he told the prime ministers. "Settlements have to be stopped."
For his part, Netanyahu assured Obama that he's ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians immediately, but conditioned any agreement on Palestinian acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. In the meantime, Palestinian statehood does not enter into Netanyahu's lexicon.
As for Obama's call to "stop settlements" -- a loose formulation subject to different interpretations -- Netanyahu before the summit already had gone on record that Israel would not build new settlements on his watch, while reserving the right to build homes within existing settlements. While there were immediate media reports that the president demanded an end to settlement "construction," I've not been able to find any such no-construction quote. At this point, it seems the White House may prefer to keep Israelis and Palestinians guessing as to exactly what it means by Obama's call to "stop settlements." New settlements or natural growth within settlements?
As for the Palestinians, Obama said he also itends to demand "difficult steps" from them. Palestinians, he said, "are going to have to do a better job of providing the kind of security assurances that the Israeli would need to achieve a two-state solution."
And to drive home this point further, Obama added: "That means all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed to." The president's reference to "all the parties," he stressed, including Arab states as well. Arab leaders, he said, must be "bolder" and "more supportive" in seeking normalization with Israel.
In sum, the president seems to be relying increasingly on George W. Bush's "road map" to advance his Mideast peace strategy. In sync with the "road map," Obama is setting mutual, incremental confidence-building markers as the path toward an eventual peace agreement, starting with the need for Palestinians to put a permanent end to violence and terrorism, and for Israel to rein in settlements.
That's a strategy that Bush, prodded by Condoleeza Rice, abandoned in his second term with the Annapolis declaration, which put Palestinian statehood as an immediate goal -- even while half of a presumed eventual Palestinian state in Gaza remains ruled by the terrorirst oganization Hamas and Israel has as yet to dismantle illegal outposts in the West Bank.
Since Netanyahu, before the summit, made clear that he would abide by previous signed peace agreements, including the "road map," this would seem to still leave some room for a joint U.S.-Israeli peace strategy to evolve in the weeks and months ahead.