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Netanyahu At The White House: Not Yet Change We Can Believe In


Overall, yesterday’s White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has to be seen as a draw. As former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Obama adviser Daniel Kurtzer noted before the meeting, "for different but complementary reasons, both Obama and Netanyahu do not want this meeting to fail." And it didn’t. There was no public acknowledgement of strategic differences between them, the tone was friendly and upbeat, the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship" re-emerged unchanged and intact.   

At a broader level, the meeting provides an indication that the Obama administration real policy towards Israel – including the existence and amount of any U.S. pressure on Israel to meet any U.S. political demands or even implementation of existing Israeli commitments – is, at least for now, going to remain behind-the-scenes. The reality that the U.S. is still the financial, military, diplomatic and political superpower patron on which Israel depends was not reflected in the press conference that followed the meeting.

Certainly, this creates challenges for all those – in the U.S., in the region, and internationally – who are trying to bring about real change in U.S. policy. The reality is there will not likely be an easier time for Obama in the future if he intends to bring any real pressure to bear on Israel towards his stated goal of a two-state solution.

Palestinian parliamentarian and pro-democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti wrote in the Los Angeles Times just before the meeting, "It’s now or almost certainly never. If Obama lacks the political will to stand up to Netanyahu now, he will lack the capacity later. And by the time Obama leaves office, it will be too late to salvage anything more than an archipelago of Palestinian bantustans. We Palestinians seek freedom, not apartheid, and not the sort of Potemkin villages on the West Bank that Netanyahu is trying to package to the West as visionary economic boomtowns for desperate Palestinians."

It’s only going to get harder from here, but so far we still don’t really know where "here" is.  Obama’s public posture didn’t challenge Netanyahu’s fundamental claims – but he did not accept them either, and made clear his own position.

Special Relationships

Obama began the post-meeting press encounter with an effusive reaffirmation of "the extraordinary relationship, the special relationship between the United States and Israel. It is a stalwart ally of the United States. We have historical ties, emotional ties.  As the only true democracy of the Middle East it is a source of admiration and inspiration for the American people." He went on to promise "that when it comes to my policies towards Israel and the Middle East that Israel’s security is paramount, and I repeated that to Prime Minister Netanyahu.  It is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel’s security as an independent Jewish state is maintained."

That last reference is a profoundly dangerous position (though consistent with Bush administration policy), since it endorses the legal discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel, as well as the existence of things like separate legal systems for Jews and non-Jews (Palestinians) in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. It is those systems of discrimination that provide the basis for legal scholars’ and human rights advocates’ assessment that Israel is in violation of the UN’s 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid

Iran First

Obama spoke first during the press encounter following their meeting, beginning with Iran, Israel’s top concern. He quickly "reassured" the Israeli leader that even though the U.S. is now engaging diplomatically rather than threatening Iran, that "we are not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions."

Obama reasserted the U.S. policy of persuasion vis-à-vis Iran, and challenged Netanyahu’s claim that Iran’s alleged (though nonexistent, according to international and U.S. intelligence sources) nuclear weapons program had to be ended or destroyed before Israel could be expected to deal with the Palestinian issue. Obama openly disagreed, saying that any such linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process "actually runs the other way." He softened his own position somewhat by prefacing his description with "I personally believe," thereby taking the position out of the realm of policy and into the realm of interesting-but-strategically-irrelevant personal belief, but never accepted Netanyahu’s approach.

The president first rejected Netanyahu’s insistence on a short timetable for any U.S. diplomatic initiative towards Iran, stating unequivocally "I don’t want to set an artificial deadline" in negotiations with Iran. But that clarity was again undermined by his follow-up assurance to Israel that "we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they [the Iranians] are moving in the right direction." Small wonder that many analysts, Israeli and others, agreed with David Makovsky, of the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, who said on the The PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, "I thought that was the news of the day, in many ways, because for the first time I had heard President Obama talking about a clear timetable for negotiations with Iran."

The president stated that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon "could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East." That of course denies the reality that a Middle East nuclear arms race has unfortunately been underway for years in response to Israel’s well-known but officially unacknowledged nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu asserted at least three times that he and Obama are on the same page, especially on Iran. "We share the same goals, and we face the same threats," he said. A few minutes later: "that’s what I hear the president saying, and that’s what I’m saying, too." And then: "we don’t see closely on it; we see exactly eye to eye on this." Obama never agreed with, repeated or asserted those claims, but did not publicly challenge them either.

So the public gap between stated U.S. and Israeli positions remains. Obama reassured Israel of a reassessment of Iran policy at the end of the year, but made no commitments to or even hints regarding support for military force against Iran, and left plenty of room to continue diplomatic engagement even without harsher sanctions – an option, presumably, to be chosen only if his administration faces enough serious pressure to maintain diplomacy and not to escalate.

Then Palestine

Only after his reassurances on Iran did the question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine (though of course those words were not used) come up in Obama’s presentation.

As Barghouti cautioned, "the false Iran-Palestine linkage troubles me because its Israeli boosters think that Iran is an immediate concern, and Palestinian freedom can once again be kicked down the road. Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister and a representative of Lieberman’s extremist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said in April that ‘the Iranian clock should be measured in months,’ but the Palestinian timetable ‘is open-ended.’"

Obama referred again to his support for a two-state solution, and noted that all parties "have to take seriously obligations that they’ve previously agreed to." He called for moving forward in a way that would "also allow Palestinians to govern themselves as an independent state." That was significant, given Netanyahu’s position that while he wants the Palestinians to "govern" themselves, he calls only for "a substantive solution that allows the two people to live side by side in security and peace and I add prosperity, because I’m a great believer in this." Netanyahu is not, however, a believer in independence, statehood, self-determination, an end to occupation (even of the narrowly-defined and truncated U.S. version). He has no intention of allowing Palestinians the actual powers and rights of real statehood – such as signing treaties, control of borders, making independent defense and military decisions, etc. Whether Obama’s version of statehood includes such sovereignty remains unclear.

Obama stated his position that "under the roadmap and under Annapolis that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it’s an important one and it has to be addressed." It was an important reference point, but the president didn’t publicly mention any enforcement that might bring real results from Israel, such as announcing or even hinting that some of the promised $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel over the next ten years would be made conditional on Israel actually implementing – not just "addressing" – a complete settlement freeze.

As expected, Obama also didn’t refer directly to Netanyahu’s public rejection of a two-state solution. In fact, official reversal of that policy would have mattered little; earlier Israeli leaders have been effusive in their rhetorical support for it while continuing settlement expansion, land seizures, and apartheid policies on the ground. More disappointing – though hardly unexpected – was the lack of any public U.S. insistence on Israeli action on the ground, perhaps a settlement freeze, as Israel officially agreed to under the "road map." The Israeli leader can now brag to his constituents that publicly, at least, there wasn’t even a hint of serious public pressure from Obama to implement any of Israel’s obligations.

Obama did refer to the need for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Gaza, specifically mentioning the border closures, but again there was no hint of pressure for implementation; Netanyahu refused to acknowledge the point.

So publicly, there is no indication yet that this initial meeting, at least, will lead to anything different from the last 18 years of "serious" Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Unfortunately, whether this reflects actual policy or the extraordinary caution and discipline of a still-new White House, it’s probably still too early to tell.

Looking to the Future

In my pre-meeting analysis, I posed the following scenarios:

If President Obama, meeting with Netanyahu, demands a real settlement freeze – meaning an end to construction, expansion and building in all settlements, not only outposts – it could signify a real change in U.S. policy towards Israel.  But only if it is backed up by specific enforcement mechanisms – like conditioning all (or even part) of the annual $3 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel until there is tangible, internationally-confirmed action on the ground.  

So far, that "real change" remains elusive; this first Obama-Netanyahu meeting included no public acknowledgement of any U.S. pressure brought to bear to insure real implementation of Israel’s existing treaties or other international (or U.S.) law obligations. Netanyahu responded with silence to Obama’s reference to "settlements have to be stopped."

Obama’s acceptance of mere words from Netanyahu, on the other hand, whether he "accepts" a settlement freeze or "agrees" to a new round of talks about talks with the Palestinians, and not imposing any conditions to make sure it happens, will indicate that so far, at least, U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid remain intact.

So far, Obama seems willing – at least in public – to accept as sufficient Netanyahu’s call "to resume negotiations as rapidly as possible." Those "negotiations," according to Netanyahu, would first require that "the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state." This may be the most direct indication of a dangerous concession Obama is willing to make – acquiescence to the demand that the Palestinians accept the legitimacy of second-class citizenship for Palestinian citizens inside Israel, and the legitimacy of an apartheid system both inside Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory that privileges Jews and discriminates against non-Jews.

And any "deal" that offers Israel any promise of U.S. support for or involvement in a military strike against Iran, will undermine whatever small move towards justice might be possible from a settlement freeze or removal of roadblocks.

So far, Obama offered no deals on Iran. Despite his disappointing shift towards a deadline in U.S.-Iran diplomacy, there was no hint of acceptance of Netanyahu’s call for a U.S. (or approval of an Israeli) military strike against Iran. While Obama spoke of the very dangerous possibility of harsher sanctions against Iran if diplomacy didn’t "work" fast enough, it was left to Netanyahu to "thank" Obama for his alleged "statement that you’re leaving all options on the table" – something Obama had not said during the press encounter. Obama did not rebut the claim – but he didn’t reaffirm it either.

Opening Gambits

This was a first meeting; at least in public, both politicians were playing primarily to their home audiences. The indicators so far were disappointing. But this was only round one.  What happens next, privately and publicly, will be determined largely by the level of pressure that is brought to bear on Obama. 

We know the capacity of Israel’s U.S. supporters to raise that pressure. The question for us is how to challenge it, for diplomacy instead of threats towards Iran, and an end to U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid and for a U.S. policy based on equality for all. We have to raise our own claims – regarding Iran and Palestine – based on holding Obama to his own promises – for a changed foreign policy, for an end to the mindset that leads to war.

There’s a lot of work ahead.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Ending the Iraq War: A Primer. If you want to receive her talking points and articles on a regular basis, click here and choose "New Internationalism."

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