Saturday, May 16, 2009
U.S. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama hold their first meeting at the White House on Monday, and though some Israeli and U.S. analysts fear the two new leaders are on a collision course, there may also be new room for agreement.
The hawkish Netanyahu wants to make Iran the focus of the talks. For the Israeli prime minister, the potential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran is paramount. Israel has not ruled out a military confrontation with Iran, a scenario that concerns Washington.
Obama wants Israel to make a forceful push for peace with the Palestinians. Obama has described the creation of a Palestinian state as "critical," calling it key to ending the "unsustainable" conflict in the region.
Looking For A New Approach
Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, says that Netanyahu's new coalition government is looking for a new approach to the Middle East peace process.
"For the last 16 years we have been dealing with a defunct peace process, which yielded no results. So we didn't want to take the baton from the previous government and run into the same direction to nowhere, actually, just by inertia," Ayalon told a recent press conference of international journalists in Israel.
So far, Netanyahu has resisted subscribing to the so-called two-state solution — an independent Palestinian state established alongside Israel — which is endorsed by the United States.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and a close confidant of the prime minister, says Israel can never allow a Palestinian state that has control over its own airspace and the ability to make military treaties with foreign countries.
"Netanyahu, I believe, is trying to be not disingenuous," Gold said. "He doesn't want to say 'state,' implying all the powers that are implicit in sovereignty and statehood. And then afterwards you get to the negotiations then he subtracts those powers."
Is Netanyahu Open To Palestinian Statehood?
But in an interview Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he believes Netanyahu will endorse the creation of a Palestinian state during his visit to Washington.
"I think and believe that Netanyahu will tell Obama this government is prepared to go for a political process that will result in two peoples living side by side in peace and mutual respect," Barak told an Israeli television station.
Robert Freedman, a Middle East expert at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, thinks there is room for compromise.
While it is unlikely that Netanyahu will utter the magic words "two-state solution" following Monday's meeting with Obama, he said, Netanyahu's eventual conversion isn't far fetched. Freedman says Netanyahu could get his coalition government to go along with a peace deal. It is only the more extreme minor parties in his Netanyahu's center-right coalition that are true holdouts on Palestinian statehood.
Jewish settlements in the West Bank are another major sticking point. Washington wants a freeze on the growth of settlements. Coalition partners in Netanyahu's Likud-led government have vowed to push for expanded settlements. Palestinians view the West Bank as part of their future state.
"On the Israeli side all you are talking about is natural growth. You can't forbid Israelis — 300,000 of them — to have children," Gold said of the West Bank settlers. "And if children want to have a house next to their parents, that is not a massive expansion of settlements that exploits territory and affects the final outcome of negotiations."
The plan that Netanyahu will be presenting to Obama, according to aides, will leave the big issues of peace talks on the back burner. Instead, the Israelis want to focus on helping the West Bank economy and bolstering Palestinian security services.
With two rival Palestinian governments — the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority controlling the West Bank and Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip — the time is not right for full-scale negotiations, Israelis say.
How Far Can Obama Push?
But the Obama administration has said it wants peace talks to restart as soon as possible. How far and how fast can Obama push the Israelis?
Israeli analyst Uri Dromi says Netanyahu is constrained by internal Israeli politics and couldn't make peace concessions even if he wanted to.
"He definitely has a difficult coalition and he's outflanked by the right," Dromi said. "So, yes, he has some partners who will make it difficult for him to make any compromises."
In the West Bank capital of Ramallah, the mood is bleak. Palestinian officials say that Netanyahu has no interest in moving the peace process forward.
Mohammed al-Mafri, a security adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, warns time is of the essence.
"In Palestine, the influence of radical fundamentalist religious parties is on the increase. In Israel, the influence of extreme religious groups is also on the increase. So we are reaching a situation where bloodshed is inevitable," he said. "The picture right now is indeed dark."
Palestinian lawmaker Moheb Awad agrees, saying what happens next is in America's hands. "If the United States can't pressure the Israelis to achieve peace with the Palestinians, then who can?" he said.
Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser under Bush, says the Obama-Netanyahu relationship is only part of the equation.
Obama meets Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Abbas separately later this month.
"In this visit, Netanyahu has really got to impress upon the president how important Iran is and make that more important than the Palestinian issue in Obama's mind," said Abrams, now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"His success in doing that will depend, in part, on Mubarak," he said. "If Mubarak comes along a week later and persuades Obama that the Palestinians are the central issue, that would be a failure for Netanyahu."
— NPR's Scott Neuman in Washington contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press was used.