News & Media Articles

Obama and Netanyahu: Looking Past the Hype

20 May 2009 By New Israel Fund

The much anticipated, initial meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is now history.  Despite the pre-meeting hyped expectation of a public clash, the extended one-on-one conversation does not portend a significant rupture between the US and Israel regarding policies pertaining to Iran or Israeli-Palestinian peace-making.  Nonetheless, Obama’s and Netanyahu’s post-meeting comments reflect their divergent approaches toward addressing these two issues. 

Obama remains committed to engaging Iran diplomatically, at least in the short term, and to pressing forward with US-led efforts to facilitate resolution of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.  Netanyahu is skeptical that Iran will respond to US diplomatic initiatives and refuses, at least publicly, to accept the formation of a Palestinian state as the end game of a Middle East peace process.   Given these real differences, as framed by the sincere desire to avoid a public spat, the burden now falls upon President Obama’s special envoys, George Mitchell for the Middle East and Dennis Ross for Iran, to devise creative approaches that take into account Netanyahu’s reservations, but do not allow his negativism to discourage a pro-active US role on either front. 

In pursuing their efforts, Mitchell and Ross, as well as Obama and Secretary Clinton, must consider the internal political realities confronting Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian President Abbas, who will visit the White House next week.  Despite our preoccupation with the broader peace process issues, the survival of Netanyahu’s fragile coalition depends primarily on how he addresses various domestic challenges.  These include, most notably, the severe economic downturn now affecting Israel as well as efforts by right-wing nationalist politicians to create facts on the ground, not only by expanding settlements in the West Bank, but by seeking to marginalize Israel’s non-Jewish minority.   Thus, pro-active US engagement is only one of the factors that will determine the efficacy of our diplomacy in the Middle East.

Obviously, the United States government is (and should be) limited in terms of influencing Israeli domestic politics.   Still, Obama and his team should remain vocal in expressing the US interest in securing a Middle East peace, and should make the US voice heard regarding actions that complicate these efforts, including continued settlement activity in the West Bank, housing demolitions in East Jerusalem and restrictions on freedom of movement, which preclude the Palestinians from developing their economy.   In addition, the Administration is correct in encouraging by the broader Arab world to take specific steps towards recognition -- such as over-flight rights and direct telephone linkages -- that can serve as confidence- building measures and begin the transformation of Israeli public opinion.  

Yet, the battle for Israeli public opinion will not be easily won.  The notion of a grand bargain is losing appeal among Israel’s Jewish citizens, and neither the government nor the population necessarily has the stomach for exacerbating the political divides that the inevitable compromises with Israel’s neighbors will provoke.  Clearly then, this hyper-active American Administration must devise ongoing mechanisms for engaging the Israeli public in a sincere dialogue.  And of course, this effort must be replicated in the Palestinian Territories, where the divides are equally profound, and their consequences far more deadly.