Bibi and Obama: Could a Clash Be in the Offing?

Two New Leaders Contend with A Growing List of Differences

Working on their relationship: Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Barack Obama (right) are due to meet in May.
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Working on their relationship: Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Barack Obama (right) are due to meet in May.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
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Are they headed for a diplomatic divorce? Or can this relationship be saved?

The growing number of differences between the new Obama administration and the newer Netanyahu government is coming into view at a sensitive time. American envoy George Mitchell seemed, during his recent Middle East visit, to draw attention to the apparent disconnect between his vision and Benjamin Netanyahu’s by making a mantra of the very policy that Netanyahu has declined to support — the “two-state solution.”

At the same time, Netanyahu’s choice of foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, continues to raise eyebrows; Lieberman’s fiery inaugural speech, in which he charged that Israel is not bound by the Annapolis process, did not help assuage fears. More recently, he used his first major interview since his appointment to give a blasé view of relations between Israel and the United States. “Believe me, America accepts all our decisions,” he told the Russian newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets before going on to say that the two-state solution is a nice slogan that lacks substance.

Israel’s politicians and foreign relations experts are sharply divided on how to interpret all this. Some say that an Israel-America clash is in the offing and that we are witnessing, in the words of Ben-Gurion University professor Yoram Meital, the “relative calm before the storm.”

Some see the storm clouds already gathering, even as word comes from the White House that President Obama and Netanyahu will likely meet at the end of May. Ophir Pines-Paz, one of the Labor lawmakers who led the opposition to his party joining the governing coalition, said in a statement: “Lieberman is conducting himself like an elephant in a china shop and is inflicting strategic damage on Israel’s interests. In light of Lieberman’s remarks it is uncertain whether or not there is any point to the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama.”

And yet, others believe that reports of friction, if true at all, are exaggerated, that the administrations will work together smoothly, and that they will find considerable ground for agreement. Talk of a clash is “all hot air,” former Israeli peace negotiator Gidi Grinstein told the Forward.

There is no doubt that Israel’s policy toward the peace process is now under review. When they met, Lieberman told Mitchell that the “traditional” approach has brought neither results nor solutions. Meanwhile, the White House has indicated that it is more set than ever on the Saudi-backed Arab peace plan — a plan that Lieberman described on April 22 as “a dangerous proposal, a recipe for the destruction of Israel,” and that Netanyahu is also thought to oppose.

“There is a clash of agendas and priorities between the right-wing Israeli government and the agenda Obama is trying to advance,” said Meital, head of Ben-Gurion University’s Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy. “I think that this government would do anything capable to buy time in not achieving the Arab Peace Initiative. It will be like a car on full gas but in neutral, saying we would like peace and to hear new ideas and develop them, while producing nothing on the ground.”

Referencing Obama’s more open stance in Latin America, some analysts predict that he may engage Hamas and/or Hezbollah, or foster an atmosphere where European allies feel increasingly comfortable doing so.

But there is another theory, diametrically opposed, that Obama and Netanyahu look poised to come to a common understanding on Hamas and Hezbollah and, in so doing, make progress possible on the Palestinian issue.

“If you look at it objectively and lay out all the strategic cards, you see that for Israel to make concessions, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah need to be neutralized first,” said Eytan Gilboa, senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

While Meital and others who emphasize Jerusalem-Washington tension suggest that Netanyahu is fundamentally opposed to the two-state solution, Gilboa predicts that if these threats are dealt with, Netanyahu will agree to it. “Most Israelis support the establishment of a Palestinian state if it is going to be peaceful, but not if it becomes like Gaza. This is exactly what Netanyahu is going to say,” Gilboa argued.

Grinstein, the former negotiator who now heads the Reut Institute think tank, shares the belief that the two-state solution will bring together Israel and America rather than divide them. “Once the Israelis are done with their reassessment, and the Americans done with theirs, they may well find themselves much closer than people imagine,” he said.

The notion that there is tension over the two-state solution is a red herring, he said, as it is part of the “road map” that the new Israeli government accepts. In his view, equally inaccurate is the idea that America is determined to see final-status negotiations in the coming months. Grinstein said Netanyahu’s assumption “that it isn’t possible to reach final-status negotiations at the moment is probably more relevant than the idea that you can.”

With Gaza ruled by Hamas, and the West Bank by the weakened Palestinian Authority, he expects America’s administration to share this conclusion. Israel and America will both arrive at the belief that “putting the two-state solution through a moment of truth at such a moment may be dangerous,” he said, reasoning that if statehood were to be declared, the P.A. could be “so weak that you could see the entire [Palestinian] political system implode.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com.






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