Netanyahu meets Obama: Smiles, but tension ahead

By David Landau, May 21, 2009
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Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama meet at the White House

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama meet at the White House

Benjamin Netanyahu flew home from Washington with a significant and unpredicted achievement: President Obama, with the Israeli leader by his side in the White House, set a deadline for his new policy of dialogue with Iran. By the end of the year, the President said, “we should have a fairly good sense as to whether they are moving in the right direction”.

Still unanswered, however, and perhaps compounded by the deadline on Iran, is how Washington-Jerusalem relations are likely to shape up in coming months. And also a riddle, with potentially fateful repercussions, is what happens if the dialogue policy fails.

The Prime Minister said the chief importance of his longer-than-scheduled conversation in the Oval Office was the personal rapport between the two leaders. “I felt easy,” he said. “We speak the same language.”

But he, like the President, did not bother to deny the wide policy differences that separated them on the Palestinian issue. The President, in his remarks to reporters, pointedly repeated his commitment to the two-state solution and the Road Map-Annapolis process. Mr Netanyahu just as pointedly avoided statehood, arguing that it was “terminology” and what was important was “substance”. In briefings later he seemed subdued, as though resigned to future tensions.

Mr Netanyahu revealed that Mr Obama is planning shortly to unveil a new MidEast peace overture. He said the “new element” would be trying to engage other Arab states in the region and urging them to normalise their relations with Israel. He spoke of this with positive anticipation. But he observed, almost philosophically, that the perennial disputes between Israel and the US over settlement-building would doubtless “come up in further discussions between us — soon”.

Will the Iranian threat sharpen or blunt those anticipated tensions? Asked about the “linkage” Israel sees between stopping Iran and moving ahead with the Palestinians, Mr Obama replied that “if there is a linkage… I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians — between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”

Not what Israel wanted to hear. Mr Netanyahu, sensibly, tried to fudge the issue, without soft-pedalling his own perspective. “It would help, obviously, to unite a broad front against Iran if we had peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And conversely, if Iran went nuclear, it would threaten the progress towards peace and destabilise the entire area, and threaten existing peace agreements.”

And if the US dialogue doesn’t work? More sensible fudging from the Israeli leader — but with a note of steel, too. He had reviewed with the President the meaning of millennia of Jewish impotence and of the Zionist “return to history… An ancient nation must protect its sovereignty… Israel reserves its right to self-defence”. Strong words, presaging a tough and tense half-year ahead.

David Landau is the former editor of Ha’aretz

    Last updated: 3:05pm, July 16 2009