Friday, May 28, 2010

When Bibi Meets Barack: What Will Happen in Their Upcoming Meeting

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By Barry Rubin

Why was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu suddenly invited to meet with President Barack Obama next week? There are three very different reasons.

One is the Obama Administration’s realization that its harsh policy toward Israel has been mistaken and has yielded it no diplomatic benefit. Another is the knowledge that this policy is very unpopular among Americans in general as well as American Jews in particular. With November elections coming up, the White House wants to cut its losses.

There is also, however, a third reason which relates to substantive issues. The White House wants to hear from Netanyahu what his views and plans are regarding negotiations with the Palestinians. The Obama Administration is eager for progress on indirect talks, hopeful of moving to direct talks (which Netanyahu very much wants to do), and is also looking at longer-range possibilities.

My view is that Netanyahu should stress the following: Israel wants peace and is willing to agree to a two-state solution. But here’s what we want in return, so go to the Palestinians and see what they are willing to give in exchange for an independent state.

At this point, he explains the need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; demilitarization of any Palestinian state (which I would call “nonmilitarization,” meaning that it keeps existing security forces but doesn’t build separate, conventional armed forces); that any agreement will permanently end the conflict and all Palestinian claims; and that all refugees must be resettled in the state of Palestine. He must also explain in detail what Israel wants in terms of security guarantees.

To a lesser extent, Netanyahu can discuss his views on borders. But his task is to break the pattern in which only Palestinian demands are considered and debated. In this context, the question is only what will Israel give, never what it will get in exchange.

This is a reasonable set of demands and one that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be able to meet if it were a “normal” political entity seeking a permanent two-state solution.

Unfortunately, the leadership—and even more those who stand behind them in Fatah—wants to wipe Israel off the map and get everything. But that’s a lesson that the Obama Administration has to learn for itself.

The current PA strategy is to pretend cooperation but ensure that, in effect, the talks are sabotaged. It hopes at some point next year to go to the United States and Europeans to claim that since Netanyahu won't make a deal they should recognize a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence or force Israel to accept a Palestinian state with no concessions by the PA. This probably won't work, though there are enough hints to the contrary to persuade the PA that this kind of strategy is its best bet.

The point for Netanyahu, then, is to express his total cooperation with peace efforts. If the PA refuses direct negotiations and rejects reasonable offers he must show that this will not be Israel’s fault.

Another approach suggests that Netanyahu should offer some kind of interim solution in which the PA would become a de facto state leaving Jerusalem, borders, and most other issues for the future. I think this would be a disastrous error, in essence giving the PA what it wants first without it having to make any compromises. No matter what time limit or conditions are put on the plan, once there is a Palestinian state recognized by the entire West and a full member of the UN, all such limitations will erode away.

Remember the issue here is not what a final diplomatic solution would look like but what negotiating posture Netanyahu will take in his White House visit.

Two other points must be mentioned. Netanyahu will show appreciation for the U.S. efforts on sanctions, but what longer-range strategy does he advocate? Probably, here, he will learn more about U.S. views on containment and strategy if and when Iran gets nuclear weapons as well as further unilateral sanctions. He is going to have to listen and evaluate what this approach means for Israel, especially in considering whether or not Israel should attack Iranian facilities at some point in the future.

Finally, Netanyahu is going to have to use all his smoothness and charm to educate his interlocutors about what the Middle East is really like without ever hinting that he is being patronizing or arrogant. That’s a tall order but if any Israeli can do that, Netanyahu can.

In contrast to the last visit, where he was received quite rudely, this one is set to be a love fest publicly. Eventually, we will find out whether it was that way privately as well.

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