The first meeting at the White House between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being treated with almost as much gravity as though it had been a summit conference between two hostile parties during the cold war. Was the press conference testy? How often did the two men smile at each other? Was Obama riled by Netanyahu's refusal to utter the term "two-state" solution? Who said what behind closed doors?
Obama has the upper hand in the relationship and Netanyahu knows it. Both leaders put a cordial face upon their meeting. The cynical realist, Netanyahu, who is the leader of a coalition that is shaky at best, cannot afford an open confrontation with the globally popular visionary, Obama. But Netanyahu can stall, dawdle, and delay in dealing with Obama-a time-honored tactic among Israeli leaders, who have for decades been establishing facts on the ground as they expand West Bank settlements, carving out new territory to defend and creating demands to protect the last settlement that was constructed. Netanyahu remained mum on the topic at the White House. Indeed, Netanyahu, in failing to speak of a Palestinian state, barely bothered to disguise his contempt for the Palestinians, who, he said, should not be allowed to turn into a "handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel."
Obama's taciturnity when it comes to Israel has already put some critics on the alert. Writing on his blog at Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt asked,
First, will the Obama administration elaborate and commit itself to a concrete vision that specifies in some detail what a two-state solution would entail? Or will it continue to invoke the "two-state" mantra while declaring that it is up to the (deeply-divided) Israelis and (deeply-divided) Palestinians to negotiate the terms?
Obama is unlikely to spell out a specific peace in advance, and it's not really his job. But Obama did note that "Israel is going to have to take some difficult steps as well," calling upon it to halt the construction of further settlements.
Even if the president put forth a minutely detailed peace proposal, it would only prompt further bickering among the various parties who would gleefully tear it to shreds rather than treat with each other directly. But Obama delivered the message to Netanyahu that he wants real talks with the Palestinian leadership, and soon. Even if Netanyahu were suddenly to have a change of heart and seek peace, though, one problem remains: whom would he deal with? Hamas, which refuses to recognize the existence of Israel? Or the corrupt and enfeebled Fatah?
For all the talk of a comprehensive Middle East settlement, the more likely prospect is that Obama will focus not on Israel, but on Iran as the key to unlocking progress. This is what Netanyahu has been pleading for in the form of an alliance against Tehran that includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who also feel threatened by the Islamic Republic: "there's never been a time," he said, "when Arabs and Israelis see a common threat the way we see it today." Obama's stance, though, is diametrically opposed to Netanyahu's. He wants to defang the Iranian nuclear threat through negotiations. As he pursues diplomacy, Obama will face as much skepticism from American conservatives as he will from Netanyahu himself.
The battle lines were laid down today. Writing in the Washington Post, John P. Hannah, a former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, made the case for confrontation with Iran. (It's interesting that the locus of fusillades against Obama is Cheney as opposed to Bush administration officials. It's no exaggeration to speak of a Cheney administration and a Bush administration that coexisted simultaneously for eight years.) Hannah attacks both Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. According to Hannah,
short of regime change or military attack, the method most likely to persuade an anti-American, terrorist-sponsoring state such as Iran to cease its nuclear weapons program is credibly threatening the regime's hold on power. . . . the United States should simultaneously be working to confront the regime with a crippling combination of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and military coercion.
By forgoing the threat of military action, Hannah concluded, the Obama administration is hamstringing itself.
On Monday, Obama gave negotiations about a year to show some real progress, but noted that he didn't want to set an "artificial deadline." For Netanyahu it would, in a sense, be a disaster if he succeeded. The Iran threat has allowed Israel to fixate on a foreign foe in lieu of confronting the messy and seemingly intractable problem of reaching a peace with the Palestinians.
Obama isn't taking that approach. He wants to solve both problems. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already indicated that the administration would not necessarily reject the prospect of a Palestinian government made up of Fatah and Hamas, which triumphed in 2006 parliamentary elections that the Bush administration had fervently supported as a sign of spreading democracy. What's more, when Obama visits the Middle East, he'll no doubt get an earful from Arab leaders about Netanyahu and Iran. In M. J. Rosenberg's view on Talking Points Memo, "Over the next week, as the President gets ready for his meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, it will become inceasingly [sic] clear that Israel and the United States are farther apart on the key issues than they have been in decades."
Perhaps. Obama also indicated that if diplomacy fails, he would be in a stronger position to pursue a more confrontational course against Iran. Might he, in fact, become the first American president to bomb Tehran? The possibility cannot be excluded. But as Obama tries diplomacy first, he will surely continue to disconcert Netanyahu and his allies. If Obama fails to show any progress, he will come under severe fire from conservatives for appeasing one of America's most dangerous foes. For now, however, Obama and Netanyahu have decided to paper over any disagreements they may have. Whether their next meeting will be as cheerful as this one, though, is an open question.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.