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Netanyahu and Obama: Disagreements in the Oval Office

Benjamin Netanyahu is known (and often mocked) for his blunt depiction of how he saw Israel's relationship with the Palestinians in the post-Oslo years of the late 1990's. "If they give, they will receive. If they don't give, they won't receive," Prime Minister Netanyahu said back then (1998), suggesting that the burden of delivery was on the Palestinians and that Israel will act on its commitments under the Oslo agreements only once the Palestinians fulfill theirs.

In the Oval Office Monday, the comeback prime minister experienced some giving and receiving Obama style. After weeks of preparations, having leaked to the media that he was bringing to Washington a new plan for Mideast peace, Netanyahu ended up giving President Obama very little with which the U.S. could work to advance peace in the Middle East. And he received very little in return.

In fact, Netanyahu seemed confused and unprepared for a meeting with an American president who doesn't play by the old rules of American-Israeli relations. President Obama was explicit and direct. He stated clearly what he expects from Netanyahu, and challenged him to deliver. Signaling that he was not impressed by Netanyahu's assertion that going too far toward Palestinian statehood might jeopardize Bibi's hard-line coalition, Obama said: "I have great confidence in Prime Minister Netanyahu's political skills, but also his historical vision. . . . And I have great confidence that he's going to rise to the occasion."

Netanyahu was baffled because, as David Ignatius correctly pointed out in his May 20 Washington Post column, he faced a president "who feels politically secure enough to ignore the usual rules of the U.S.-Israel relationship and push hard for what he thinks is right." That notion set in on Tuesday, when Netanyahu visited Capitol Hill and realized that the old strategy of pitting Congress against the executive branch is not an option in Obama's Washington. The rules have changed.

Netanyahu's sour meeting with Obama at the White House underscored the deep disagreements between the two leaders. So much so, that when Netanyahu briefed Israeli journalists shortly after the meeting, he insisted that "there were more agreements than disagreements." Veteran Israeli reporters who sat around the table at Blair House scoffed. For a country that values its alliance with the U.S. as its top national security asset, "more agreements than disagreements" sets the bar embarrassingly low.

The embarrassing disappointment was front and center in the Israeli media on Tuesday. Maariv's main headline was one word, splashed across the front page: "Disagreements." Yedioth Ahronoth's leading news story was headlined "Disagreements and Smiles," and an accompanying analysis was headlined "Agreed not to Agree." Haaretz's main headline read: "Obama to Netanyahu: Stop Settlements."

The media saw through the efforts of both leaders and their spinmeisters to accentuate the positive. No doubt, there still is a lot on which Israel and the U.S. see eye-to-eye. But on the two issues that were the very core of the Obama-Bibi agenda Monday - addressing Iran and advancing Middle East peace - the two leaders differed. And the differences are not marginal. They are deep. They reflect conflicting outlooks, conflicting worldviews that cannot be easily bridged.

On Iran, despite the agreement on the importance of blocking Teheran from obtaining nuclear weapons (an agreement that Israel and the U.S. have always shared), Netanyahu failed to get Obama to commit to a deadline for diplomacy. Obama did say that by the end of 2009, the U.S. will assess the progress on the diplomatic front, but refused to commit to a subsequent course of action.

Political disagreements often result in a band-aid remedy: forming a committee. Here too, Obama and Netanyahu agreed to form a working group that will meet frequently - maybe even monthly - to coordinate strategy and discuss progress on addressing the Iranian challenge. For Israelis, who overwhelmingly believe that diplomacy is a waste of precious time as Iran approaches nuclear capability, a committee is not much of an achievement. This is how Yedioth Ahronoth's Nahum Barnea, Israel's leading columnist, depicted the sum-total of the (dis)agreements on Iran: "Netanyahu can be pleased with the direction things have taken, not with the timetable. It would seem, for all intents and purposes, that Iran has a year and more to continue to promote its nuclear program. That is something that Israel is going to be very hard put to live with."

On the Palestinian issue, the disagreement seems deeper. It goes much beyond Netanyahu's refusal to utter the phrase "two state solution." Netanyahu attempted to make light of the issue by saying that "terminology" should not supersede substance. After all, the shared goal, he said, is for Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in peace, security and prosperity. Does it really matter if you use the word state? What he told Israeli reporters following the White House photo-op was different. Israel is willing to give the Palestinians "authorities, except ones that would threaten us," he said. The main issue is "limiting the sovereignty" of a future Palestinian entity. Netanyahu knows that there is little incentive for the Palestinians to make concessions around the negotiating table when the end goal is less than statehood. They have already received limited self-rule authorities from Israel. He also knows that Palestinian limited autonomy is a non-starter as far as Obama is concerned. It is not a coincidence that Obama mentioned the two-state solution three times at the White House photo-op Monday.

And then there is the issue of the settlements. Obama demanded cessation. "Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward," Obama plainly said, causing deep concern in Netanyahu's entourage. What does the President mean when he uses this rather unusual word, "stopped," they demanded to know. The word was repeated Tuesday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told reporters that she reiterated to Netanyahu over dinner Monday that Obama "wants to see a stop to the settlements."

When asked by Israeli reporters Monday about his intentions on settlements, Netanyahu again dusted off his give-and-receive formula. Israel will carry out its Roadmap commitments, he said, in the framework of both sides' commitments. In that context he referred to the Gaza Strip, where Israel removed all its settlements and was faced with Hamas is in power. When asked if he intends to take action on settlements only when Hamas is either deposed or disarmed, Netanyahu said that this is not what he was suggesting. However, he said, one should wait for the new peace plan that the Obama administration is reportedly preparing.

The new peace plan may be the big news of Netanyahu's visit. Reportedly, the administration is planning to leverage the Arab League's Peace Initiative - perhaps in a somewhat softened form - to provide an added regional component to the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. The administration sees the Arab Initiative as a very promising. Netanyahu, when asked about it by Israeli reporters Monday, shortly after discussing it with Obama, sarcastically said that the Arab Initiative "is in fact an improvement" compared to the "Three No's" of the Arab Leagues' 1967 Khartoum conference.

Netanyahu came to Washington bruised by criticism over his performance domestically during his first fifty days in office. Judging by Israeli press reports, he is returning from Washington having suffered more political bruises, this time over his foreign policy performance.

The prime minister may try to stick to his hard line positions, but most Israelis will have little patience with policies that jeopardize Israel's relationship with the United States, its chief national security asset. Israelis know that while they can afford to play the receive-what-you-give game with the Palestinians, where Israel has more to give than to receive, they cannot afford to play it with Washington.

 
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