Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit in Washington

Press review – week from May 18 to 20, 2009

The Israeli-American meeting between the two newly elected leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama took place last Monday at the White House. The outcome of the meeting did not go against the forecasts: the two men both remained in their positions.

Many media had announced a tense meeting between the two leaders since if the American President wants on the one hand an early settlement of the Palestinian issue with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and on the other en a policy of dialogue with Iran, Prime Minister of Israel does not accept the negotiated solution of two states side by side, only eventually accepting an improvement of autonomy and economy for the Palestinians, while putting the Iranian nuclear issue at the forefront of its foreign policy. On the settlements, B. Obama called for a cessation of Israeli settlements and the dismantlement of the existing outposts as the first step to any resumption of dialogue with the Palestinians and Arab countries, while B. Netanyahu is supporting the development of settlements because of their natural population growth.

Well summarized in a few words in the New York Times, former U.S. negotiator for the Middle East, Aaron David Miller described the meeting as the President « Yes we can » meeting with the Prime Minister « No you won ‘t « .
The Iranian issue

On the Iran issue, between the desire for tough measures by the Israeli government and the policy dialogue advocated by the U.S. administration, it is difficult to understand the specific results of the interview. Obama does not want to establish an artificial deadline regarding Iran, but nevertheless indicating possible reassessment of the strategy of dialogue at the end of this year. What has been commented by Benjamin Netanyahu with a formula used by Bush on Iran, thanking Obama for « leaving all options on the table. »

As highlighted in the New York Times, it is the first time that Obama refers to a timetable, even vague about progress in talks with Iran. It is without doubt the evocation of this opportunity that make the experts interviewed by the Jerusalem Post say that Netanyahu seems to have won the meeting.

Moreover, the day after the meeting, the New York Times emphasizes that even if they have different ways of achieving this, Americans and Israelis have nevertheless the same goal: to halt the Iranian nuclear threat. Basically they do not seem to agree on the technical question of time remaining for Iran to possess the bomb. Estimations are varied: while some see this at the end of 2010, Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense believes that the threat would become serious only five years later.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process

Le Monde reported the arguments of some Israeli politicians against the establishment of an independent Palestinian state which could, like the Gaza Strip, put the security of Israel in danger. Meanwhile, the Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared that this position seemed to be reversible, suggesting that the government « would be prepared to take difficult decisions », in other words to make concessions when needed.

In this regard it has been an interesting reaction by Corinne Lesne on her blog Big Picture, Croquis d’Amérique. Under a heading « How to make concessions at low cost? « The journalist of Le Monde points out that Congress, like AIPAC, were supporters of a two-state solution and that this solution is mentioned in all the peace plans since Oslo and was even used in the Roadmap, the acceptance of this procedure by Benjamin Netanyahu will now appear as a concession …

This concession has in any case not been made by the Prime Minister of Israel who, as he did in Amman and Cairo, refused to consider any substantial progress towards the Palestinians since they do not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. It also conceded nothing considering the settlements. For his part Barack Obama declared that it was « not only in the interest of the Palestinians, but also of Israelis, Americans and the international community to achieve a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and security”. In short, it has been a dialogue of the deaf. The American President has also announced that a new regional peace process will be outlined on June 4, during his visit to Cairo.

Following the meeting, the Palestinian reactions were numerous. In the New York Times, the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat welcomed the U.S. position it as a strong come back of the United States in the peace process. Quoted by the Palestine News Network, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council said that « Netanyahu’s remarks in Washington confirmed his true intentions to destroy all the options for peace. » While the Yediot Aharonot quoted Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum saying that « Obama’s statements and messages of hope are meant to mislead global public opinion regarding the continued existence and conduct of the racist and extremist Zionist entity. »

In Israel, the leftist daily Haaretz published last Friday the results of a survey conducted among the Israeli population and underlining that 57% of respondents felt that Netanyahu had to endorse the two-state solution. So think also 40% of the people who identify themselves as voters of the Likud. The rightist daily in English Jerusalem Post believes that Netanyahu managed to persuade Obama of the need to include the Arab states at the outset of any peace process and not to wait trappings of normalization as a reward. The daily also notes that the deep disagreements between the two leaders lay on the two States solution and on the colonies.
The future of Israel-US relations
The Institute for National Security Studies announced before the meeting three reasons why the relations between the U.S. administration and the new Israeli government of B. Netanyahu are likely to deteriorate: the commitment of General James L. Jones, National Security Advisor of the new U.S. administration to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prior to any movement in the Middle East, the announcement of Obama’s willingness of global denuclearization and the commitment of the United States to a two states solution announced by the Chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel to the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC.

But these reasons are that the emerging part of the iceberg of disagreements between B. Obama and B. Netanyahu. The two leaders tried of course to save face, Obama recalling the special relationship that binds the two countries and Netanyahu describing his counterpart as a « great leader » and a « great friend of Israel. » The New York Times, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu also met to discuss their respective visions for the policy to be pursued in the Middle East but also to build a personal relationship. However, as pointed out by Jon Altermann, the Middle East program’s director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, it is doubtful that any relationship has been created between the two men on that occasion. The Financial Times says that if Obama showed signs of conciliation and friendship towards Israel, he clearly distanced himself from the hardline positions of the new Government of Israel regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

However Le Figaro came back Monday on the occasion of APAIC’s annual conference on the influence of the pro-Israeli lobby on the foreign policy of the United States. This reality was put in evidence by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (see The pro-Israeli Lobby and U.S. foreign policy, La Découverte, 2007). Their criticism focused on the grip of the likoudnik right on AIPAC. Stephen Walt had entrusted to a French radio in these words « I am pro-Israeli, but I think that a political imbalance is not in the interests of the United States or Israel, » while the French-Israeli Ofer Bronstein said, « I am impressed by the civic engagement of AIPAC, but disagree with its definition of the interests of Israel. We will have to come to a solution of two separate states, and Netanyahu knows it. » In the same vein, another Jewish lobby, J Street has been established to mobilize the liberal Jewish population to support a more balanced approach of the conflict. J Street began to work near the Congress last year and was then used by Obama’s team to strengthen its new foreign policy.

Knowing the weight of the United States on the peace process, these changes suggest a possible better future.