All the right words were spoken. Praise was effusive. The handshake made a perfect photo op. The wives had tea.
Now that the July 6 summit between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been duly recorded, the true test of its worth will begin. It is clear that, for both political and pragmatic reasons, Obama seriously wants to preside over a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. The question is whether Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterparts want it as bad, and are willing to sacrifice for this elusive but necessary goal.
Obama’s wielding of American power to pursue that goal has been wobbly and uneven. In a departure from his predecessor’s unquestionable and sometimes unseemly support of Israeli government policy, Obama tried to reach out to the Muslim world while employing a tough love approach with the Israelis, a gamble that unfortunately made Israelis feel even more isolated and one that many American Jews took as a personal insult. So in putting on its most welcoming face for this visit, the White House was obviously trying a different tack.
It better work.
It better work because time is not a friend here, to either side. Four decades of occupation have taken an enormous toll on Israelis and Palestinians, and the continued stalemate provides an easy excuse for Islamic extremism the world over. It also allows Israel to ignore the growing inequality and fissions within its own society that may pose a grave security risk in the not-so-distant future.
The contours of a final-status agreement for a two-state solution have been recognized for some time. Ideas are not lacking. Political courage is what’s missing.
Netanyahu promised “concrete steps” toward peace in his chummy joint appearance with Obama. He had already loosened some of the most ridiculous features of the Gaza blockade, and taken other small steps that were rightly applauded by the Americans. With all sympathy for the almost impossible political demands he faces at home, Netanyahu must now quickly decide whether he is going to be the prime minister who sits on an ever-narrowing fence, or one who can leap over it into the future.
The Palestinians, too, have fateful decisions before them. Their resistance to direct talks, while technically legitimate, is only contributing to the rotting status quo. They need to make common cause with Israelis to build a Palestinian state that will shine as a positive alternative to the growing dangers posed by Hamas and its patron, Iran.
Yes, the past year would have been smoother for anxious American Jews if Obama had done some things differently. And yes, it would be lovely if he took up Netanyahu’s offer and visited Israel so that he can calm the frayed nerves there, too.
But ultimately, this is about Israelis and Palestinians and their collective future, not about words and gestures from Washington. It’s not too late. Yet.