The Six Issues That Divide Netanyahu from Obama
May 18, 2009
President Barack Obama welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House on Monday, at a moment when the White House and the Israeli leadership are undeniably at odds over the path to Middle East peace.
While the Obama Administration remains steadfastly committed to Israel's security, its ideas on how to achieve that security differ markedly from those of the hawkish Netanyahu government.
As Obama moves to revive the stalled Middle East peace process, Monday's meeting has been widely predicted to be a tense affair, but that may be overstating the drama. Netanyahu, like any Israeli Prime Minister, has an overwhelming incentive to get along with Israel's single most important ally; Obama, for his part, needs to fashion a peace process that produces results, for which he requires Netanyahu's cooperation. So Monday's encounter won't be a showdown as much as the opening exchange of a difficult conversation that could continue for months.
Herewith, a short guide to the issues that divide Obama and Netanyahu:
A Two-State Solution?
The idea of creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel on the territory it occupied in 1967 is the overwhelming international consensus, accepted even - according to opinion polls - by a majority of Israelis. The Obama Administration is not content to simply articulate that vision, as President George W. Bush did; instead, it seeks to move briskly toward realizing such a solution before the evolving facts on the ground make it untenable.
Netanyahu, however, has refused to endorse the principle of Palestinian statehood, insisting that sovereign independence for the Palestinians would endanger Israel's security. The Palestinians, Netanyahu has argued until now, will have to settle for a more limited form of self-government within borders still effectively controlled by Israel. Despite some speculation that he might make a rhetorical concession on the statehood issue on Monday, a top aide told the Israeli media Netanyahu would not do so - at least, not yet. (See pictures of Israel's recent war in Gaza.)
The Administration has made clear that it expects Israel to work toward a two-state solution. Netanyahu is expected to agree to talk to the Palestinians, to ease their circumstances and build their economy. But he maintains that trying to reach a final-status agreement right now is misguided and counterproductive, arguing that the priority is to build Palestinian administrative, security and economic capacity - and to tackle Iran, which he sees as a spoiler to any peace effort. (See pictures of Israel at 60.)
Next: What Gets Priority?
Netanyahu will argue that Washington's goals are best achieved if it gives priority to curbing Iran's nuclear and geopolitical ambitions before separating Israel from the Palestinians. He claims his Arab neighbors agree that reining in Iran is the region's priority, because it threatens their own stability. Given Tehran's support of Hamas, he'll say progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians is impossible until Iran has been pushed back. (See pictures of Jerusalem divided.)
Obama will agree that curbing Iran's regional influence and limiting its nuclear activities is an urgent priority. But the U.S. President won't buy Netanyahu's sequencing. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a matter of urgency, Obama will argue, and he'll point out that the moderate Arab neighbors with whom the Israelis want to stand against Iran are also the ones most urgently insisting on the immediate implementation of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, whose unresolved plight strengthens radicals against moderates. Netanyahu will say no progress is possible on the Palestinian front until Iran is defanged; Obama will argue that rallying Arab support against Iran's ambitions requires resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Next: The Timetable
What's the Hurry?
Netanyahu will argue that whether the outcome is two states or something less, this is not the moment to try to conclude the peace process. The Palestinians are hopelessly divided, with the moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lacking the political authority to deliver on any peace promises. Indeed, the PA President's term of office expired in January, and polls show he'd lose to Hamas in an election held now. Instead of final-status negotiations, Netanyahu will advocate building the Palestinians' administrative and security capacity, and promoting economic development, in enclaves currently under Abbas' control. Without this infrastructure of stability - and the neutralizing of Hamas - he'll argue, no progress is possible. (See pictures of Hamas-Fatah conflict.)
Obama will make clear that whatever stability has been created thus far in the West Bank is premised on the achievement of Palestinian statehood, and will collapse without rapid movement along that path. Politically, President Abbas' Fatah movement suffers from the fact that its moderation and almost two decades of negotiation has seen only an expansion of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Fatah cannot remain committed to a peace process without end if it is to reverse its declining political fortunes among its own people. The same may be true for the U.S.-trained security forces that have helped subdue the West Bank. Hamas has proven to be an intractable reality of Palestinian political life, and Obama may argue that a workable peace process would require its consent. Most importantly, he'll note that time is running out for Abbas and the Arab regimes that have cooperated with Israel and have come away empty-handed in the eyes of their own people.
Next: The Settlements
Freeze the Settlements
Obama will tell Netanyahu that stability is undermined, potentially fatally, by Israel's continued expansion of its settlements in the West Bank, and by its moves to extend control over East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 war but claimed by the Palestinians as their future capital. But Netanyahu's government includes strong settler representation, and while he'll unenthusiastically promise to dismantle outposts built in violation of Israeli law, he's unlikely to court a confrontation with the settlers unless there are substantial political rewards. He'll insist on maintaining the "natural growth" of Israel's settlements, and reiterate his view that sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians is a nonstarter. (See pictures of Israeli settlers resisting eviction.)
The Gaza war earlier this year forced the Israeli-Palestinian issue to the top of the Obama Administration's agenda, and although the fighting has ended, no formal cease-fire has been agreed, and the Israeli blockade - and Palestinian political infighting - has prevented any of the $4.5 billion pledged for reconstruction by international donors from actually reaching the territory. The potential remains high for a renewed outbreak of fighting, and Obama will press Netanyahu to ease Israel's blockade to allow in construction materials and normalize economic traffic. Netanyahu remains committed to overthrowing Hamas in Gaza, and he wants Obama to pursue the same course. And his government will insist on securing the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit before easing up on Gaza.
Next: Dealing with Iran
How to Handle Iran
While supporting Obama's diplomatic efforts, Israel wants to see time limits imposed to prevent Iran playing for time while increasing its nuclear capabilities. Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that if diplomacy fails, Israel stands ready to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Obama agrees that negotiations with Iran should not be open-ended, but will allow a longer time frame than that preferred by the Israelis for diplomacy to succeed. Israel's leaders believe Iran will not back down and that negotiations are necessary primarily to win support for stronger sanctions or military action.
Israel has agreed to refrain from attacking Iran without first consulting the U.S. following reported warnings from the White House to avoid surprising Obama, whose military and security advisers have long argued that military strikes on Iran would cause more problems than they would solve. Once the diplomatic process with Tehran gets under way, the two sides may also disagree on where to draw the bottom line on uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.