Analysis: This is the least Netanyahu can do to keep Obama happy

If this works, Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu will be competing to take the credit for coming up with the idea first. If it works.

While everyone was waiting for a major bust-up between the Israeli government and the White House over Mr Netanyahu’s reluctance to commit to a two-state solution, both leaders seemed to agree to lay their differences aside, for now, and to focus on a more immediate and much smaller objective: removing the settler outposts.

Mr Netanyahu got away with an oblique statement in the Oval Office that “we don’t want to govern the Palestinians” and Mr Obama didn’t press him. Instead the president spoke of the need to stop both settlement activity and the Iranian nuclear weapon. That, at least, is what they said in the photo-op part of their meeting.

Whatever happened between them in the two hours they spent on their own, Mr Netanyahu certainly seems to have absorbed the message. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that contrary to his advisors’ fears, Mr Obama has no intention of allowing Iran to go nuclear. Despite supporting engagement with Iran for the time being, he even went on record saying that “we’re not going to have talks forever”.

But Mr Obama wants Mr Netanyahu to do something for him in return.

Linking a nuclear bomb in the hands of a radical Islamic regime and a few caravans and ramshackle homes on a handful of hilltops seems hardly feasible. But it begins to make sense when one considers both leaders’ immediate needs.

Mr Obama, with the stardust starting to fade four months into his presidency, urgently needs to show some kind of success on the international stage. North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan are all going the wrong way.

Mr Netanyahu has to prove to his many detractors in Israel and abroad that he is not the obstinate hardliner they are trying to portray.

Saying the words “two-state solution” would have made Netanyahu seem weak, landing him in a coalition crisis after only two months in office. Besides, as he no doubt said to the president, the Palestinian Authority is in disarray and about to hold its own elections; no one there is even prepared to run a Palestinian state right now. Committing to such a state would have no meaning whatsoever.

What Netanyahu can deliver is the removal of some of the outposts that were built by settlers on privately owned land. Certainly, it won’t be popular with the right-wing, including some of his own Knesset members who are already grumbling, but he can always hide behind legal arguments to prove that this is not a matter of principle, simply of upholding the law.

And besides, the outposts are a small sum to pay in return for American support over Iran.

For Obama, it may not be the stuff Nobel peace prizes are made of, but at least he will be able to show the European and Arab leaders that he managed to squeeze some kind of concession from Netanyahu. He will also be able to claim an achievement that eluded the Bush administration for eight years.

So all is apparently well. Both leaders have bought themselves some time, at least until after the Iranian, Lebanese and Palestinian elections, when one way or the other, matters in the region will be a bit more clear.

But what if it backfires?

What if the Arab leaders fail to be impressed and use Obama’s visit to Cairo next week to demand he pressures Netanyahu to do a lot more?

What if settlers make a stand around one or more of the outposts and it develops into a bloody mini-civil war?

And what if the deal between Obama and Bibi falls through and one or both sides fail to deliver?

Whatever the outcome, diplomatic harmony between the two leaders is still far from guaranteed.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010