Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Bibi Meets Barack

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Update from AIJAC

May 19, 2009
Number 05/09 #06


As this Update went out, news was coming in from Washington with respect to the Barack Obama- Binyamin Netanyahu meetings that took place on Monday, May 18. The emphasis in early reports seems to have been on the fact that Obama called for a two-state solution, while Netanyahu did not use those words in his public remarks, but much more was discussed in their press conference, the text of which is here. One feature of the conference Israelis will be pleased with is President Obama's pledge that the US will not talk to Iran forever, and will probably have a good idea by the end of the year of whether Iran is serious about acceding to the demands of the international community in relation to its nuclear program.

Both the international and Israel media have emphasised the importance of this, their first meeting in office (perhaps too much so), so here are some of the best previews of the issues, symbolism, and implications of the event. Though written before the summit was held, they summarise pretty well what went on, and the criteria for evaluating it.

First up, Israeli columnist and blogger Shmuel Rosner has a fascinating piece on why both the Americans and the Israelis have an incentive to make the lead-up look more conflictual than it actually was. In particular, Obama wants to be seen as different from Bush, and will want it to appear that he is pressuring an unwilling Netanyahu, while Netanyahu will want to look like he is resisting pressure, for his electoral base. But, argues Rosner, they actually have surprisingly similar expectations and needs, including realism about progress on the Palestinian front, and genuine common concerns and interests about Iran. For this complete argument, which may go a long way to explaining the ostensible differences on a Palestinian state at the press conference, CLICK HERE. Rosner also had excellent posts on the not often understood complexities of "freezing settlements" and about what polls of Israelis show they want Netanyahu to do vis-a-vis a Palestinian state. Others emphasising that Netanyahu's and Obama's views are closer than the media portrays them are American political insider Steve Rosen, Israeli analyst and former UN Ambassador Dore Gold, and Jerusalem Post columnist Saul Singer.

Next up, Washington Institute expert David Makovksy looks in more detail at all the issues which likely came up in the private meeting. He particularly focuses on linkage - the attempts by both sides to connect progress with the Palestinians to progress in preventing a nuclear Iran, but in opposite directions i.e. -  the US wants progress on the Palestinian issue to help them stop Iran, while Israel wants Iran progress to facilitate peace-making with the Palestinians. Makovksy says there can be no substitute for some very candid exchanges from both sides about how far they will go on both issues - something which would not be obvious from the public statements. For this complete backgrounder, CLICK HERE. Other highly useful backgrounders on the summit's issues come from BICOM, from some analysts interviewed by AFP, and  from Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post. Also, Aluf Benn of Haaretz has some useful details about the mechanics and traditions of how these meetings work.  

Finally, two top academic experts on Israeli security - Oded Eran and Emily B. Landau -  attempt to untangle the debate about linkage still further. They argue that linking progress on Iran to Israeli-Palestinian progress is potentially dangerous - both because Iran is in a position to sabotage Israeli-Palestinian progress, and because the Iran nuclear question is a priority for most of the Middle East's regimes, regardless of what happens with the Palestinians. Nonetheless, they argue Netanyahu should commit to short-term confidence building measures now and a longer term promise to renew past Israeli peace offers provided the Iranian threat and ability to interfere is curtailed. For all of their argument, CLICK HERE. Also arguing that it makes no sense to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace until the Iranian issue is under control is former Mossad head Efraim Halevy.

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A Dangerous Dance

Why Obama and Netanyahu want you to think they're on a collision course

Shmuel Rosner

The New Republic, Thursday, May 14, 2009


There are many downsides to Israel's tendency to recycle its leaders--its perpetual inability to find new leaders instead of the already-tested-and-weren't-impressive-enough ones. But this habit has some benefits as well: The recycled leaders tend to learn from their own mistakes. When Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister in the mid-70s, he went through one of the worst crises between an American and Israeli government--President Gerald Ford's so-called "reassessment." Rabin's reincarnation as prime minister in the 90s was a stark contrast: He and Bill Clinton hit it off right at the start, and never stopped loving one another until Rabin's bitter end and Clinton's heart-wrenching eulogy.

Ariel Sharon had a similar evolution. Serving as defense minister in the 80s, he angered the Reagan administration by launching the first Lebanon War. But as foreign minister in the first Benjamin Netanyahu government in the late 90s, Sharon opened back channels to American officials in the Clinton administration. Later, when Sharon himself became the prime minister, he almost always made sure to be on the same page as the Bush administration.

Netanyahu did not enjoy the luxury of having close and intimate relations with the American president during his first turn as prime minister. He was elected when the Clinton team was rooting for his rival of the Labor Party, Rabin's successor Shimon Peres, and he was raising his voice against the Oslo Accords much before most people realized its inherent problems.

Netanyahu is now having his second chance at making things work with the Americans, and most bets are against him. Obama and Bibi will be meeting early next week, and "collision course" is among its most common descriptions by experts and pundits--mostly those on both sides of the spectrum who don't want Obama and Netanyahu to get along. Collision, of course, is possible. The level of apprehension in Israel regarding the possibility of a nuclearized Iran is much higher than the one the U.S. demonstrates, and some Israelis in high office have come to the conclusion that the Obama administration doesn't show the toughness necessary for stopping it. On the other hand, the Obama team really doesn't understand what is it that Netanyahu is trying to achieve by what they think is an almost childish refusal to utter the words "two," "state," and "solution" in one soothing (even if insincere) sentence.

Thus, there is certainly potential for a tense and unpleasant meeting. And there is also motive as such on both sides: Obama needs to push Netanyahu in order to demonstrate to the rest of the world that the Bush years of nearly total accommodation are over, and Netanyahu needs to push back in order to satisfy the right-wing core of his governing coalition. This will be a delicate performance, danced to the hysterical tune of an Israeli press and an American blogosphere who tend to interpret every minor disagreement as the sign of a looming rift.

But there is little reason to get excited--not yet, at least. Some pretence and masquerading is necessary for both Obama and Netanyahu as they present their agenda and ponder in public the outcome of their meeting. But more than the two of them care to admit, they have surprisingly similar expectations and needs. In essence, they come to the meeting as realists pretending to be something else--Netanyahu the peace-skeptic, Obama the peace-maker.

They both know the "big" truths: Peace with the Palestinians isn't in the cards any time soon. Peace with Syria seems less likely than both Israel and the U.S. were hoping. (Obama sent his emissaries to Damascus twice in recent weeks, and twice they came back empty handed--resulting in an almost immediate renewal of sanctions and a public reprimand of the Syrian regime for not making enough of an effort to stop the smuggling of terrorists to Iraq.) Both know that Iran is a problem that needs be dealt with in the near future--and Obama knows as much as Netanyahu that this is not "Israel's problem" but a problem about which Arab leaders are wringing their hands behind closed doors.

But both leaders have their roles to play. Netanyahu needs to maintain the perception that he is hard-nosed enough to risk an attack on Iran's nuclear-related installations, while Obama needs to back his attempt at "engagement" by showing some willingness to squeeze the Israeli government. Beneath these performances, however, the outlook of these two leaders is much more alike than commonly thought. The meeting between them will be a delicate dance of the inner realist in both: In the updated version of Netanyahu, Obama will find a leader that's looking for practical solutions for the overwhelming problems he has to deal with. In the post-election version of Obama, Netanyahu will find the leader who still carries the slogan of "change," but at least in the international arena is quite far from being the wide-eyed na?f that some people had hoped he will be. The tension surely has the potential to explode. But for the time being, it is a dance. And for every couple, as important as this first dance might be, the important question is whether this will be followed by a second dance.

Shmuel Rosner is an editor and columnist based in Tel Aviv. He blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.

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Are Obama and Netanyahu Destined to Clash?

David Makovsky
                                
Peacewatch, May 15, 2009 

On Monday, May 18, U.S. president Barack Obama will host Israeli prime minister and Likud leader Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu at the White House for their first meeting since the new Israeli government was formed six weeks ago. Some observers predict that, sooner or later, the two are bound to collide; however, a candid exchange of their priorities could build trust and avoid a clash.
           
         The Collision Narrative
         Recent public statements and history, both, suggest the possibility of collision. Historically, two of the last three Likud leaders got off to a poor start in their first Oval Office meetings with the U.S. president and the relationships never fully recovered. When Yitzhak Shamir first met with George H.W. Bush in April 1989, the president said he had a problem with Jewish settlements. Shamir's responded that settlements were an internal Israeli matter, followed by: "Don't worry, they won't be a problem." Bush took this to mean that Shamir would not expand settlements, and consequently felt aggrieved when expansion did continue. Their relationship remained frosty. In a similar vein, after the first White House meeting between Bill Clinton and Netanyahu during his previous tenure in 1996, Clinton told gathered aides after a very confident Bibi left the room: "He thinks he is the superpower." Their ensuing relationship proved to be very rocky.

At the rhetorical level, the United States and Israel have been engaging in verbal ping-pong. Three examples come to mind: First, in the coalition negotiations leading to the formation of his government, Netanyahu refused to say that his government's policy guidelines would be based on a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Meanwhile senior U.S. officials say publicly that the only way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a two-state solution. Second, new Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman referred to the 2007 Annapolis peace conference, which sought to define the contours of an agreement and create a basis for Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations, as invalid. Yet President Obama said in an Ankara speech that Annapolis was a basis for moving forward. Third, when Israel stated that its ability to move ahead on the Palestinian issue depended on U.S. progress on Iran, a U.S. official responded that success in Iran hinged on progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Each side invoked their own form of linkage.
       
         Two-State Solution and Linkage
     To American officials and observers, Netanyahu's reluctance to embrace the two-state solution has been an irritant because it suggests relitigating the past. The Middle East Quartet Roadmap, adopted by the Israeli government by a 12-7 vote on May 25, 2003 -- although with reservations -- says at the very outset that it is "a performance-based roadmap toward a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Even Lieberman, who voted against the roadmap at the time, says it binds Israel today. Not rehashing the past is critical, because the United States seeks to ensure that the Quartet conditions remain valid, including the proviso that Hamas accept past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
   
     Senior Israeli officials hint that Netanyahu may tell Obama privately that he accepts the two-state solution if accompanied by the same restrictions on Palestinian sovereignty -- such as nonmilitarization -- that Labor and Kadima leaders espouse, but will not do so publicly for fear that it would create a perception of domestic weakness so soon after his election. However, Netanyahu may find it is advantageous to defuse the issue by making a statement backing the two-state solution now, since there could be domestic political fallout if he makes such a statement only after a rising international chorus in the coming months. On a related note, Netanyahu will likely find support in the United States for his belief that a goal of negotiations should be recognition by all parties of a Palestinian state as the Palestinian homeland just as Israel is the Jewish homeland. Vice President Biden made a speech mentioning Israel as a "secure Jewish state" just two weeks ago.

         A public debate over the issue of linkage, namely, whether Iran is the key to resolving the Palestinian issue or vice versa, should be avoided. The Iran and the Palestinian issues need to be addressed in parallel, without administration assertions of linkage. Top Arab officials quietly admit that their inability to be forceful on the Iran issue are unrelated to Israel: Arab fears of Iran are sincere and not a favor to Israel. Even the acerbic head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, no fan of Israel, made it clear publicly this week that these are distinct issues. Moreover, given that Iran has threatened the existence of Israel, it is problematic to say that U.S. efforts to curb Iran are conditional. It runs counter to President Obama's repeated public commitment to Israel's security.              For its part, Israel cannot put its peace efforts on hold either. To the contrary, it needs to address the Palestinian issue, given the demographic challenges that it faces.
   
     Trust Building

So, even assuming the two leaders exhibit outward smiles and project friendship at their press conference on Monday, is the Obama-Bibi relationship headed for trouble? Not necessarily, but the two sides must work hard to build trust. Underlying the anxiety on both sides is a fear that each is not truly committed to addressing the other's top priority. Netanyahu believes that history has called on him to be in power at this time to prevent another Holocaust. He has said this in private to his senior aides, not just to the public. Therefore, Netanyahu wants to know what Obama will do if U.S.-Iranian diplomacy fails and Iran continues its march toward nuclear weapons. It is facile to believe that Netanyahu would press Obama to attack Iran in the event that diplomacy fails. Many other options exist, ranging from increased sanctions to an Israeli military strike. Nonetheless, at a time when the United States is seeking to maximize its leverage before engaging with Iran, Netanyahu will likely be angered that some senior U.S. officials have publicly -- rather than privately -- warned Israel about attacking Iran. He will worry about what Iran will glean from such public messaging by the Obama administration.
   
     For Obama's part, he will want to hear clearly from Netanyahu his plans for the Palestinians. How will Israel's approach to the Palestinians work if Israel does not curb settlement activity? Obama will appreciate a recent public statement by Netanyahu that economic progress is insufficient, and that such improvement must be accompanied by political progress. Moving forward on this issue is important to Obama, who sees it as evocative -- albeit not linked to resolutions of other conflicts -- in a region where he is seeking to improve U.S. standing. To that end, Obama is likely to tell Netanyahu about U.S. efforts to have Arab states take preliminary steps toward Israel as it moves toward the Palestinians by curbing settlement activity.
   
     Conclusion
     If the two leaders' priorities are not tackled head on, there could be trouble ahead. Given the past problems between the two countries, there is no substitute for Obama and Netanyahu emptying the room and beginning a very candid discussion of bottom lines. Netanyahu aides insist that this is not the 1990s and that he is willing to be more forthcoming on Palestinian issues if he is convinced that Iran, the paymaster of Hamas and Hezbollah, will not pose a nuclear threat to Israel. Yet, vagueness of intentions will only feed mistrust. In short, Netanyahu needs to be explicit about which direction he is headed on the Palestinian issue, and Obama needs to level with Netanyahu on how he views U.S. policy toward Iran in the event that diplomacy fails. Trust building harbors no shortcuts: each side needs to share its bottom line. And in this lies the hope for a relationship that stays on track, without derailment.
  
                
David Makovsky is a Washington Institute Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of its Project on the Middle East Peace Process. He is coauthor, with Dennis Ross, of the forthcoming title Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (Viking/Penguin).

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Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Making a smart connection

ODED ERAN and EMILY B. LANDAU

 THE JERUSALEM POST, May. 17, 2009

A message coming from the Obama administration in the past few weeks is that dealing effectively with Iran's nuclear ambitions is contingent on Israel being more forthcoming with regard to peace talks with the Palestinians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has explained the connection: For Israel to get the kind of strong support it wants vis-à-vis Iran from Arab states, they must see movement as far as its willingness to reenter discussions on the Palestinian question, and visible efforts to achieve Palestinian statehood.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu advocates a reverse sequencing for any linkage between these two challenges. If there is a connection between them, Netanyahu has asserted that movement on the Palestinian issue is contingent on results in curbing Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions.

Can this gap be bridged? The emerging US linkage is not only misguided, but potentially dangerous for the entire region.

First of all, the key to successful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is obviously not simply a function of change in Israel's approach. The failure of 15 years of previous efforts to reach a settlement underscores that there are no easy solutions that are just waiting to be embraced by the two sides. Indeed, a major constraint today is inter-Palestinian conflict; if serious discussions were to begin with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, with Iran's backing, would most likely take action to disrupt them.

SECONDLY, MOST of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf as well as Egypt have demonstrated of late that their concern with Iran's hegemonic impulses has reached new and unprecedented heights, and that Iran is today much higher on their immediate agenda than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of the urgency of the emerging Iranian nuclear threat, they, like Israel, do not have time to wait for success in the Palestinian sphere. The common interest between Israel and these Arab states on Iran is real, and will not disappear if there is not movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

If the Obama administration continues to adhere to the logic of this contingency, it could be handing success to Iran on a silver platter. This is because it would mean that lack of visible progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amounts to the inability of the US to confront Iran in a determined fashion, and Iran will slowly progress toward its goal in the nuclear realm. This is clearly a lose-lose proposition for all. And of course the blame for failure - in a negotiation that Clinton herself is on record as saying that in any case has little chance of success - will then be placed squarely on Israel's shoulders.

The US must recognize that the number one threat to stability in the Middle East and to the security of many states in the region, as well as a contributing threat to the success of Israeli-Palestinian talks themselves due to its ability to disrupt them, is Iran. As such, curtailing its nuclear and regional ambitions is the major issue that must be resolved in the first place. And in this regard, Netanyahu's equation that says Iran first, and then the Palestinians, rests on solid ground as far as its basic strategic logic.

The problem is that the Obama administration has taken Netanyahu's words to mean that while he wants to see progress on the Iranian issue, with regard to the Palestinians, well, we'll see. This is why Netanyahu's logical stance needs to be backed up by a much stronger sense of commitment to his version of the sequence.

A BRIDGING FORMULA is possible. Two essential components are necessary, one short term and one long term. For the long term, Netanyahu must seriously commit himself to the following: If the US is successful in containing Iran's nuclear activities and cutting its military ties with Hamas and Hizbullah, Israel will be willing to enter negotiations with the PA on the basis of past understandings and agreements approved by previous governments. In the short term, it should take concrete steps in the coming months to freeze further settlements in the West Bank and remove illegal outposts, to dismantle roadblocks not necessary for security and to reduce activities in certain cities and give the PA more responsibility in the security realm.

If Netanyahu adopted this stance, there is reason to believe that it would satisfy the US administration. From Clinton's portrayal, the goal is not to conclude peace with the Palestinians, but to indicate that Israel is seriously moving in that direction. Thus, some initial steps, backed up by a commitment to come back to this discussion once negotiations with Iran have produced results, are likely to be sufficient. Most importantly, the US would have no excuse not to move ahead with determination in confronting Iran.

Oded Eran is the director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and Emily B. Landau is a senior research associate at the institute.

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