When they met last summer, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu and Barack Obama were aspiring to lead their respective countries. This time, Obama has been in power for four months and Netanyahu for a little over four weeks. But even though each of them has taken the political reins in their respective countries, it is not surprising that the messages appeared ambivalent and inconclusive following last Monday’s meeting.
The president reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel and promised to work for peace. This was to be expected, but he also emphasized the need for a two state solution and asked for an end to the building of new colonies in the occupied territories. Finally, on the subject of Iran, Obama made it clear that he would pursue all diplomatic efforts to have that nation halt its nuclear enrichment program. Netanyahu, on the other hand, stressed his fear that Iran might one day have The Bomb and only alluded to an “arrangement between Israel and Palestine” as opposed to a two state solution.
Senior officials like Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke have made it clear they intend to temper the unconditional support the Bush administration offered Israel and ask for some concrete gestures of conciliation. We may be entering a tough love phase between the two allies. In that sense, the Obama administration’s approach is closer to that of Bush senior than that of his son. Make no mistake about it: the Democrats are fully committed to Israel. But the Israeli PM is being asked to understand that the peace process means negotiations, a change in rhetoric and, perhaps most importantly, some compromise. To be fair, Netanyahu could not be expected to make any concessions on any of these points. Given that a right wing coalition put him—and is keeping him—in power, backtracking so early in his mandate would have been imprudent. However, Bibi must know that his second run at the job cannot be a repeat of the first. Judging by the body language of Obama, the new administration expects something different.
Around the Gaza conflict in late 2008, this blog suggested that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the first test for Obama. Much of the conflict was over by Inauguration Day, but the fundamental problems linger. The Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign state, but it must recognize Israel’s existence before that becomes a reality. This is key to the possibility of peace. Granted, there are many other divisive issues to resolve, and the neighborhood will not remain indifferent. Israel is absolutely correct in its concerns about Iran. However, all stand to benefit from finding common ground and building for the future. The positive thing to keep in mind about this first Bibi-Obama summit is that it occurred at the beginning of each leader’s term—Clinton and Barak and Bush and Olmert all made a big push for peace at the end of their respective mandates, but we all know where that got us.