Detailed Analysis of the Obama-Netanyahu Meeting
By Barry Rubin*
May 19, 2009
This article includes Part 1, an analysis of Obama’s statement, followed by Part 2, an analysis of Netanyahu’s statement.
So what did President Barack Obama say after the meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and what does it mean?
First, Obama went to great lengths to stress his belief in the special relationship between the two countries, knowing his fealty to it has been (understandably and rightfully) challenged. He consciously escalated it by calling it an “extraordinary relationship” adding “historical ties, emotional ties,” “only true democracy of the Middle East,” “a source of admiration and inspiration for the American people.” He then went on to say Israel’s security “is paramount” in his policy.
No signal to Arab regimes or Iran here of eroding support. This is the part they will look at and he knew it. This is not mere boiler plate. By setting the bar so high he is saying that the relationship is central and important, one not to be lightly undermined. That doesn’t mean he won’t do anything in that direction but it is publicly limiting himself from making any fundamental shift.
Of course, he and his administration can, and will, justify things they do as being for Israel’s own good. But again, opening with this statement is important and very purposeful.
A. The Iran Issue
He then focused on “the deepening concern around the potential pursuit of a nuclear weapon by Iran.” Some have focused on his following remark that Netanyahu “has been very vocal in his concerns about” this as if Obama was being sarcastic, but he added this “is a concern that is shared by his countrymen and women across the political spectrum.” In other words, he is associating America’s stance with this view.
A key word, of course, is “potential.” Does this mean he doesn’t believe Tehran is trying to get nuclear weapons? No, but he is arguing that the outcome is still open, that is his belief he can talk them out of it.
That, of course, is a mistake. Of course, one could interpret it as saying that Iran will be stopped from ever getting such weapons, by force if necessary. I don’t think that was his intention but it should be kept in mind.
But Obama added:
“Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would not only be a threat to Israel and a threat to the United States, but would be profoundly destabilizing in the international community as a whole and could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would be extraordinarily dangerous for all concerned, including for Iran.”
That’s a pretty strong statement. He then spoke of how the United States will try to talk Iran out of doing this without foreclosing tougher actions in future.
Whatever concerns one has about this- and I have them-this is the best possible statement one could have expected out of this American president. Remember he is not just talking to Netanyahu but to the Iranian regime and the whole region in so defining the U.S. stance.
Obama even added:
“The one thing we’re also aware of is the fact that the history, of least, of negotiation with Iran is that there is a lot of talk but not always action and follow-through. And that’s why it is important for us, I think, without having set an artificial deadline, to be mindful of the fact that we’re not going to have talks forever. We’re not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds with developing a nuclear — and deploying a nuclear weapon. That’s something, obviously, Israel is concerned about, but it’s also an issue of concern for the United States and for the international community as a whole.”
Here, he is saying he isn’t naïve and won’t let Iran fool him. Whether that’s true in practice remains to be seen but at least he is aware of this issue.
On another issue, however, he still doesn’t get it, asked whether his efforts at talking and compromising might be perceived by America’s enemies as weakness he responded:
“Well, it’s not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness.”
Unfortunately, this shows he doesn’t understand the Middle East. His basic mantra is: toughness has been tried and hasn’t worked so let’s try being nice. If Obama is ever going to avoid disaster in the region, much less accomplish anything, he’s going to have to get beyond this simple-minded concept.
On Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Obama said it was in everyone’s interest “to achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security.”
I think the way this was phrased is very important. The great majority of Israelis can agree-even Netanyahu, in my opinion, would do so-that a two-state solution that really worked would be a good outcome.
The problem is that most Israelis don’t believe at this point that a two-state solution would work because the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, Hamas, Iran, Syria, Hizballah and other forces either would ensure it never came about in the first place or would be quickly destabilized.
So the way Obama put it-and it was deliberate-is not in contradiction to Israeli views and interests.
Note also how he phrased his discussion of something else:
“Those obligations [of both sides] were outlined in the road map; they were discussed extensively in Annapolis.”
Remember that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was criticized for saying that Israel adhered to the road map but not to Annapolis. This position accepts that view. The road map presents the obligations; Annapolis is non-binding, a mere discussion. That phrasing was very deliberate.
And then of course Obama added that everyone should seize this opportunity for progress and mentioned five specific points, a list weighted in Israel’s favor: assures Israel’s security, stops terrorism and rocket attacks, and economic development for the Palestinians (which is Netanyahu’s emphasis) along with having an independent Palestinian state.
Indeed, Obama went even further in accommodating Netanyahu’s standpoint. He did not only-despite what I have read in some analyses-talk about Israeli concessions or obligations but also very much about Palestinian ones, his:
“Recognition that the Palestinians are going to have to do a better job providing the kinds of security assurances that Israelis would need to achieve a two-state solution; that the leadership of the Palestinians will have to gain additional legitimacy and credibility with their own people, and delivering services. And that’s something that the United States and Israel can be helpful in seeing them accomplish.”
This is something extremely important and he even said that he would convey this point to Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the PA, when he visited Washington.
On Israel’s side he said settlements have to be stopped-though there are no new settlements or expanding of settlements in territorial terms, a point that often is forgotten. There has to be reconstruction of Gaza along with an end to rocket attacks, which means a loosening of border controls.
This is not so difficult for Israel to accomplish: close down some outposts, remove new settlement efforts, and revise the border controls on Gaza. These are all things Netanyahu is quite prepared to do to maintain good relations with the United States.
Another important point on which Obama just doesn’t get it because of lack of knowledge about the Middle East regards linkage:
“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….Imagine how much less mischief a Hezbollah or a Hamas could do if in fact we had moved a Palestinian-Israeli track in a direction that gave the Palestinian people hope. And if Hezbollah and Hamas is weakened, imagine how that impacts Iran’s ability to make mischief, and vice versa.”
As I have explained elsewhere, such efforts would actually strengthen Iran, Hizballah and Hamas because any compromise agreement-even assuming such a thing were to be possible-would inflame radicalism. Again, failing to understand that, Obama doesn’t get the Middle East….Yet, at least.
Overall, though, the meeting was a success. It is important to emphasize that this was not just true on the atmospherics or the surface. Obama’s original ideology and the original intentions of his administration have been modified by taking into account Israel’s views and interests as well as some touch of reality about the region.
In other respects, it has not been so modified. The needle has moved from “catastrophic” to “very bad” on the region in general, and from “confrontational” to “pretty good” on the bilateral U.S.-Israel front. The rest depends on whether the administration insists on putting the priority on its ideas or on its experiences in future.