Last week’s meeting with US President Barack Obama was, on the surface, a dream outcome for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, especially in view of the harsh political environment surrounding him prior to his visit.
Although it was widely anticipated that Obama would roll out the red carpet, the effusive praise he showered on Netanyahu and Israel was almost surrealistic and reminiscent of the best days of US-Israel relations. It contrasted starkly to previous hostility, which had even descended to chilling allegations that Israeli intransigence was costing American “blood and treasure.”
Obama praised Netanyahu, saying “I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I believe he is ready to take risks for peace.” He also stated that while there was hope for peace, he was not “blindly optimistic” and that Israel was entitled to be skeptical about the peace process. He even urged the Arabs to move forward.
More importantly, even prior to the meeting, the Obama administration’s belated sanctions against Iran heightened its concern about the nuclear threat which poses the greatest danger facing Israel. In striking contrast to the US betrayal of Israel at May’s nuclear nonproliferation conference, where the Jewish state was the only country singled out for condemnation, Obama went beyond any previous US leader in providing public endorsement for Israel’s nuclear policy. He explicitly told Netanyahu that “the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine its security interests” and until such time as a comprehensive regional peace settlement had been achieved, would resist pressures from those seeking to force Israel to abandon its nuclear capabilities.
Beyond this, despite predictions from the media and Netanyahu’s political opponents that he would be obliged to make further unilateral concessions to placate Obama, the prime minister publicly conceded nothing beyond reiterating his willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians. Nor was there evidence of pressure on him to extend the settlement freeze after September.
It is quite possible that after 18 months of failing to beat Israel into submission, and observing the resilient manner in which Netanyahu retained his dignity and resisted his bullying, Obama realized that his strategy was counterproductive. He may have decided to utilize carrots rather than sticks and cooperation as an ally rather than an adversary.
As a consequence, the Netanyahu government has, at least in the short term, emerged stronger than ever. The displays of affection Obama conveyed to Netanyahu neutralized Kadima’s principal argument that he could never cooperate with this administration. The Labor rebels will also have less justification for withdrawing from the government.
YET DESPITE the sighs of relief, it would be foolish to assume that American policy toward Israel has undergone a fundamental change.
We are not privy to the 90 minutes of discussions that took place behind closed doors. Were commitments made in relation to extending the settlement freeze? Did Netanyahu reach any agreements regarding defensible borders? Was there still talk of a two-year timetable for an independent Palestinian state? We will probably know more in the months to come.
Irrespective of what will happen in the future, we must unhesitatingly welcome the dramatically changed atmosphere in which Israel is treated as an ally rather than a pariah. Obama’s statements are immensely beneficial, especially during these turbulent times. And in light of what he said on record, it will be awkward (although not inconceivable) for him to once again reverse his position.
Yet we should not count our chickens until they are hatched and must gird ourselves for the very real possibility that this Netanyahu-Obama summit of goodwill may still prove to be a false calm before the storm.
One need not be a cynic to recognize that the primary motivation for the dramatic reversal was the hostile public reaction, by Americans solidly supportive of Israel, against the shabby treatment meted to the Jewish state. And more so, the alienation of Jewish Democrats and pressure on Obama from congressmen concerned about the fallout in the November congressional elections.
One need only observe the precedents of Obama’s zigzagging in relation to Israel during the course of the presidential elections to appreciate how fickle (or pragmatic) he can be to garner votes and financial contributions. However unlikely it may seem today, we must be prepared for the possibility that Obama could resume his previous posture after the congressional elections and revert to beating up on Israel in a vain effort to appease the Arab world. Indeed, when the impending talks with the Palestinians inevitably fail, Obama may even consider himself better positioned as a “friend” supposedly acting in our best interests to impose a solution on us.
NEVERTHELESS, THERE is a major window of opportunity between now and November to reinforce the new approach and set the record straight with the administration concerning our narrative – which was skimmed over during the talks. The bottom line remains that without a sea change in the attitude of the Palestinians, there is unlikely to be any real progress toward a Palestinian state. In that context, Israel has made enough compromises and shed sufficient blood over the past decade not to be expected to make further unilateral concessions unless based on genuine reciprocity.
This will necessitate the US recognizing that peace is unachievable unless the Palestinians accept that Israel is here to stay and that their dream of ending Jewish sovereignty is unattainable. It will require US pressure on the Palestinian leaders to prepare their people for peace by ending the vicious incitement which continues to poison their society.
Obama surely understands that, surrounded by vicious enemies under Iranian direction, Israel must ensure that a future Palestinian state will be demilitarized and that we retain defensible borders, including control over the Jordan Valley. Having witnessed the impotence and failure of UNIFIL in Lebanon to prevent the rearmament of Hizbullah, Netanyahu must reject the recommendation of US National Security Adviser James Jones that IDF forces in the West Bank be substituted by third parties like NATO, the UN or other international bodies.
Whatever the future concerning the settlement freeze portends, there must be a clear understanding that Israel would not extend a moratorium in those areas which the Bush administration had already agreed would permanently remain in the country.
Above all, in the absence of direct negotiations which were maintained uninterruptedly over the past 20 years, there can be no progress on the Palestinian front.
While Netanyahu hopes to strengthen his relationship with Obama, he must be prepared, if necessary, to again stand firm against undue pressure. It is disconcerting that immediately following his meeting, Netanyahu effervescently expressed the belief that a peace settlement could be achieved within 12 months. This is virtually impossible with his current “peace partner” and he does not assist his cause by raising false expectations. But equally, we must appreciate that a prime minister is obliged to build bridges and demonstrate that he is doing his utmost to cooperate with the long-term objectives of the American administration, as long as they do not conflict with our basic security interests.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post