Expect Neither Sparks, Nor Warmth When Obama Meets Netanyahu

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to be feeling lucky even before President Barack Obama gave him much of what he wanted in Thursday’s Middle East policy speech. There’s little love lost between the two men, of course, but political circumstance forces them to cooperate. And even if Netanyahu was annoyed by Obama’s reminder that a negotiated peace would have to be based on 1967 borders, he’s unlikely to be feeling much pressure when he visits the White House on Friday.

Hours before Obama spoke, the Israeli press reported that the Prime Minister had green lighted a planning meeting expected to approve the construction of more than  1,500 new housing units in parts of East Jerusalem whose location would make them settlements according to U.S. policy and international law. That announcement seemed a cruel reminder of how far Netanyahu had forced Obama to retreat from his demand for an Israeli settlement freeze – a cave-in on Obama’s part that prompted Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and most of the Arab public to give up on what was left of the U.S.-orchestrated peace process.

 Much has been made of the fact that Obama call for a two-state solution would have to be be based on the 1967 borders with “agreed” land swaps, but this is not news — it’s been the very premise of peace negotiations all along, and the Israeli leader is well aware that the Palestinians and the wider international community will settle for nothing less. Obama’s was an unwelcome public reminder to an Israeli leader who prefers to fudge the issue of where Israel will need to go if it hopes to get Palestinian signatures on a peace agreement. Until then, and Netanyahu has always envisaged a long interregnum, of course, it’ll have Washington’s unqualified support. And the fact that Obama failed to specify that the swaps would be of equivalent land actually leaves wide latitude for Israel to press its own version of a two-state map.

More important, though, was the fact that the speech echoed many of Netanyahu’s most immediate concerns, first and foremost appearing to absolve him (at least in the Israeli interpretation) of any expectation that he negotiate with the Palestinians before they either break the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement, or Hamas is forced to change its spots. Obama also embraced Israel’s position on prioritizing its security concerns in any negotiation process, and on deferring any talks about issues such as Jerusalem and refugees. “More importantly,” writes Israeli journalist Aluf Benn, “Obama scornfully rejected the Palestinian initiative to attain recognition at the United Nations and to isolate Israel, demanded the Palestinians return to negotiations, and called on Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist. These points came straight out of the policy pages of the Prime Minister’s Bureau in Jerusalem.”

But Netanyahu purpose in Washington is not to embark on a new peace process, which is currently a hypothetical prospect. Nothing he’s done in the two years suggest that Netanyahu sees in Abbas a genuine peace partner. Instead, the Israeli leader confines himself largely to negotiating with Washington, hoping to ensure that the Palestinians are blamed for the impasse. And his immediate priority is to stop the Palestinians from seeking U.N. recognition of their sovereignty over all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem

President Obama, in both respects, was helpful:

“Israeli settlement activity continues,” Obama said, “Palestinians have walked away from talks.” He then scolded the Palestinians to get back to talks and not to dare seek to bring the force of international law to bear by taking their case to the United Nations. But Obama didn’t demand that the Israelis stop building settlements, because he knows what the answer would be.

There was nothing in Obama’s speech to give the Palestinians cause to expect anything different from the previous frustration if they return to the table. So Netanyahu has no reason to expect a new round of peace talks any time soon. His purpose, instead,  is to gird for a new wave of confrontation with the Palestinians in which they rely more than ever before of the Arab Spring tactics of unarmed civil disobedience, and of diplomacy conducted independently of Washington. The Israeli leader  is here to shore up U.S. support in what could be a turbulent summer and fall.

And Netanyahu’s confidence suggests he believes Obama’s domestic political situation plays to Israel’s advantage. Facing a tough reelection battle in a political system where cash often decides campaign outcomes, Obama could be vulnerable to pressure from deep-pocketed donors for whom Israel is a priority issue. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Thursday, “Jewish donors and fund-raisers are warning the Obama re-election campaign that the president is at risk of losing financial support because of concerns about his handling of Israel.” That would make tangling publicly with Netanyahu before November 2012 a no-no, and the Israeli leader — widely alleged in the Israeli press to prefer to have a Republican in the White House — is not likely to make it easy for Obama.

Netanyahu’s use of the phrase “indefensible borders” in response to Thursday’s speech, for example,  paints Obama as demanding that Israel imperil its own security. That’s not going to help the President win over his audience on Sunday when he seeks to reassure Israel-minded voters and donors  in an address the annual conference of the America Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) – although the flagship Israel lobbying organizational has helpfully emailed its members to urge them to refrain from booing guest speakers.

But even if Netanyahu succeeds in enlisting U.S. support against a Palestinian U.N. campaign, that would simply confirm the trend, already seen in the Arab Spring, of leaving the U.S. on the sidelines of a region in turmoil. The Palestinians, certainly, are showing little regard for U.S. preferences, having defied Washington in initiating a February Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements (the veto of which left Washington as isolated as Israel is on the issue), and again in forging a unity pact with Hamas. It would require a humiliating climb-down for Abbas to heed Obama’s admonitions and return to a negotiating table whose terms have not changed since he walked away — much less to beak agreements with Hamas that were forged in response to pressure from his own base. Netanyahu wants Obama to stop the U.N. vote, but the only way the President could do that would be if he could either offer the Palestinians a credible alternative, or  else muster enough Arab and European diplomatic opposition to the move to make them think twice. Both propositions, right now, appear dubious.

The problem facing Netanyahu is that the world — and America’s place in it — has changed, and U.S. support can’t reverse Israel’s precipitously declining diplomatic position. European and Arab countries not subject to the same domestic pressures as Obama is under see little reason to follow his lead on Middle East issues.

Even some longtime Israeli hawks have recognized the growing danger. “The coming days are a final chance to stop or, at the very least to slow down, Israel’s political setback,” wrote Dov Weissglass, top adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in Yediot Ahronot this week. “The [Palestinian] demand for independence, for a demilitarized state within the 1967 borders (with agreed border revisions) with East Jerusalem as its capital, is accepted by nearly all the countries of the world, and it will almost certainly win sweeping recognition by the UN General Assembly in September…. A political agreement is still possible, but the Palestinians are growing stronger and Israel is growing weaker. The political equation is changing for the worse, and an arrangement that is possible at present will no longer be attainable tomorrow.”

Weissglass urged Netanyahu to be proactive and regain the diplomatic initiative by embracing Abbas’ terms. Obama, at least behind closed doors might be saying the same thing. But Netanyahu’s own comments about the 1967 borders suggest he’ll try to cast himself as the party ready for peace but offering less and putting the onus on the other side — all, as Weissglass warns, probably to little avail.