The Dance of the Peace Process

Obama posed for photos with Netanyahu yesterday. But the president isn't just bowing down to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevailed over one of his most determined adversaries yesterday. No, it wasn’t Syria or Iran that capitulated. Instead, it was President Barack Obama.

At least that’s the way the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank depicts it in his column today. While the Wall Street Journal editorial page breathed a sigh of relief that Obama is “finally treating a key American ally as something other than a pariah,” Milbank suggested that Netanyahu got everything he wanted, including a photo with the president, while Obama furiously backpedaled on pressuring Israel to accommodate Palestinian concerns. According to Milbank:

Obama came to office with an admirable hope of reviving Middle East peace efforts by appealing to the Arab world and positioning himself as more of an honest broker. But he has now learned the painful lesson that domestic politics won’t allow such a stand.

But has he? There can be no doubting that Obama was eager to offer a choreographed display of unity with elections looming in the fall. For his part, Netanyahu wants to show that he hasn’t completely trashed relations with Israel’s most important ally. Already Israel has done two things to address American concerns: it has begun to revise the Gaza blockade and it has disciplined troops for their actions during the attack on the Gaza strip. The idea that Israel is simply impervious to American, or international, pressure is mistaken. That’s why Netanyahu said that direct talks with the Palestinians could take place in a few weeks.

The big news is that Obama backed him up. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says that “The minute he [Netanyahu] announces a [total] settlement freeze, the minute he announces the resumption of final status [talks] where we left them in December 2008, we will have direct talks.” In theory, the whole Israeli-Palestinian problem could be wrapped up this August. It isn’t as though there’s much mystery about the terms of a final settlement. It’s more that the parties keep trying to avoid one. They’re like an overweight person who keeps pledging to go on a diet—tomorrow.

So the big bang of a peace settlement redrawing the borders probably won’t happen. Instead, bite-size morsels will likely remain the order of the day. The real test of the American-Israeli relationship will thus come in September when the ten-month-long moratorium that Netanyahu established for settlement activity is set to expire. Nothing is more central to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship than the settlements, which is why both sides keep worrying the issue. But simply by imposing the suspension of settlement activity Netanyahu already showed some flexibility. The fact remains that Netanyahu is the only person who can deliver some kind of agreement with the Palestinians. Actions like attacking the Gaza flotilla serve to reaffirm his hard-line bona fides. It would be no small irony if the attack, which triggered an international outcry, serves to advance the cause of peace by prompting a relaxation in tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Of course, the professional peace processers will wring their hands about the failure to reach a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. But the truth is that it’s hard not to wonder if they themselves have their own vested interest in the confrontation. Absent hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians, the whole affair would become a rather boring topic.

Still, the Middle East offers plenty of cause for concern. Iran continues to move toward the construction of a nuclear bomb. Syria is upping its weaponry. And Lebanon may be good for a fresh war within a few years. So perhaps the odd couple of Obama and Netanyahu may find themselves pushed closer together in coming years than they anticipate.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.