Monday, May 18, 2009

Assumptions, linkage, priority

From their meeting at the White House, it's clear that Barack Obama has one set, Binyamin Netanyahu has another.

Iran is Netanyahu's priority, on the assumption that it is determined to develop nuclear weapons with which to annihilate Israel. The Palestinian state is Obama's priority, on the assumption that the Muslim world will become pacific once there is peace between Israel and the Palestinians (and that a Palestinian state would necessarily be at peace with Israel).

On Iran:
Following four hours of talks with Obama, Netanyahu told Israeli reporters gathered across from the White House that there are no green, red or yellow lights from the US but rather a shared sense that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capacity.

Speaking side by side at the Oval Office earlier in the day, Obama stressed the importance the US places on Israeli security and its recognition of how the Jewish state perceives the threat from Teheran, even as he defended his policy of engagement.

Obama rejected the notion of "artificial timelines" in negotiations with Iran, which he indicated he expected would begin in earnest after the Iranian election on June 12 and could subsequently expand to include direct talks between Washington and the Islamic republic.

At the same time, he stressed that "we're not going to have talk forever" and allow Teheran to develop a nuclear weapon while negotiations go on, offering that "we'll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year."

He also noted that "we are not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious."

Israel has been pushing for a timeline on the United States's diplomatic efforts out of concern that Iran could use the talks to run out the clock. The notion of a timeline was just one subject where differences were expected to emerge between the two leaders as they sat down for their first meeting as respective heads of government in a visit deemed crucial for determining the contours of their relationship and personal rapport.

On a Palestinian state:
Asked about reports in the media that Israel felt progress on Iran needed to be linked to progress with the Palestinians, Obama explicitly rejected the formulation, saying, "If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way: To the extent that we can make peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with the potential Iranian threat."

But he added that both issues needed to be addressed independently on their own merits.

And Netanyahu, with Obama nodding along, said each issue could be helpful in reaching a positive conclusion on the other, but that there was no "policy linkage." Netanyahu also thanked Obama for his willingness to keep all options on the table when it comes to Iran.

And following the meeting with Obama, he told the Israeli media that he sensed a seriousness in the new American administration to push the Arab states to take meaningful steps toward peace with Israel that he had not seen before.

In his remarks to the press, Obama said "there is a 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, [and] gain additional legitimacy and credibility with their own people, and delivering services."

He also said, "The other Arab states have to be more supportive and be bolder in seeking potential normalization with Israel."

But he cautioned Israel that it would have to make difficult steps, too, including improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and stressed that "there is a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements; that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward."

Each regards the other as basing policy on flawed assumptions: Obama regards Iran as a problem but not an immediate existential threat to Israel, and Netanyahu regards a prematurely-born Palestinian state as a breeding and staging ground for war against Israel. It seems that Netanyahu's assumptions are more grounded in real-life experience and knowledge of the Middle East.

Although the meeting seemed friendly and fruitful, the deep differences in how they see the exigencies of the situation are likely to lead to severe tensions between Israel and the United States. Where Israel sees immediate action against Iran as vital to its own survival, the United States will put pressure on Israel to make immediate concessions to the Palestinians. The inevitable clash of assumptions, priorities and linkage will sorely test the US-Israeli relationship.

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