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Netanyahu-Obama Meeting: Don't Expect Confrontation

Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 15, 2009

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Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, downplays the prospects of any confrontation over the Mideast peace process between President Barack Obama and new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their first meeting. "[Obama's] certainly ready to make his stand and lay out his positions, but he also understands very clearly that Netanyahu is a critical player when it comes to achieving the U.S. aspirations for a breakthrough in Middle East peace," says Indyk. Still, he says, Netanyahu could have trouble reconciling Obama's desire for a two-state solution with the Palestinians with opposition from his political base. However, Indyk says there could be convergence on the threat posed by Iran. That may provide an opportunity, he says, " through promoting a resolution to the Palestinian problem, to build a virtual alliance between the United States, the Arab states, and Israel designed to block Iran's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East."

The new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is due to have talks with President Obama in Washington on Monday. In advance, the Obama administration has made it known that it supports a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian, two-state solution and wants to have a direct dialogue with Iran. Netanyahu to this point has said he's for peace, but has not been specific about a two-state solution. You are a veteran of these negotiations. What do you think will happen when Netanyahu and Obama meet?

First of all, the buildup to this meeting has been one of anticipation of a confrontation. President Obama has made clear that he's committed to the two-state solution, and Netanyahu has avoided the magic words. This has led people to presume that they're headed for a clash. I think that's highly unlikely, at least at this stage. Obama is not the confrontational type. He's certainly ready to make his stand and lay out his positions, but he also understands very clearly that Netanyahu is a critical player when it comes to achieving the U.S. aspirations for a breakthrough in Middle East peace. Israel is at least 50 percent of that equation, and Obama will be much better off if he can enlist Netanyahu in the cause rather than drag him reluctantly to the table. Netanyahu has an intense interest in showing that he can handle the all-important relationship between the United States and Israel, particularly when there is such a popular [U.S.] president. Therefore, he will seek to indicate that there is no real daylight between him and the president.

Can he do that politically?

Netanyahu's constraint is a political one: the Likud party, which he leads, has become a rump right-wing party because those in the Likud party that support the two-state solution defected to Kadima--the centrist party--a few years ago when it was led by the popular Ariel Sharon. There are other parties in Netanyahu's coalition which are to the right of Likud and are even more adamantly opposed to the two-state solution. Thus Netanyahu finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place, the rock being the [U.S.] president's determination to achieve a two-state solution and the hard place being his political base [at home] which opposes it. What Netanyahu is trying to do is walk between the raindrops. When he was in Egypt to meet [President Hosni] Mubarak (Haaretz), he spoke about the need for a political horizon of peace for the Palestinians. In his address to the pro-Israeli lobby group, AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], by video conference, he talked about a three-level process of peacemaking: security, economic development for the West Bank, and a political process. He's inching toward the Obama position but trying to avoid saying the magic words "two-state solution." I think there's a good chance that if he doesn't actually say those words, he'll find a formula that minimizes the differences between himself and the president in this meeting.

Another aspect of Middle East diplomacy is of course the longstanding on-and-off negotiations between Israel and Syria for a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement, which would entail the withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Heights, which was seized in the 1967 war. Netanyahu was quoted recently as telling Russian journalists that he would never give up the Golan Heights. Is that just a political statement or is that his policy?

The former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who became a great advocate for peace before he was assassinated, in his election campaign in 1992, went up on the Golan Heights and told the settlers that he'd never agree to come down from the Golan Heights. It's standard political rhetoric for Israeli leaders. But the fact of the matter is that five Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu when he was prime minister before, in the 1990s, have engaged in negotiations with the Syrians and have offered in the context of a peace agreement to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Netanyahu is more capable than any of the other prime ministers of bringing it off because he is a right-wing leader. Therefore, the parties to the left of him will support him. In my own experience with Netanyahu, going back to the 1990's, he's always believed that if he did the deal with the Syrians, he would be able to secure his reelection if the government collapsed. That consideration must be combined with another--that the national security establishment of Israel strongly favors a peace deal with Syria if it means that Syria will move out of its alliance with Iran and into the American-led peace camp. That would have considerable strategic advantage for Israel.

There are these moments in Middle Eastern history that have turned out to be defining moments, many of them produced by American actions or inaction.

So is Netanyahu more likely to move on the Palestinian or Syrian fronts?

Netanyahu, as I described to you, is likely to face pressure from President Obama to move on the Palestinian front in ways that are politically difficult for him. When he faced a similar situation in the Clinton-era, when President Clinton was pushing him to move on the Palestinians, he launched a secret negotiation with the Syrians and actually made considerable progress. I suspect that's the way he may well go this time as well. But if he does go that way, we won't know it until the agreement is struck. Given his political situation, he'll want to keep it as secret as long as possible. Therefore it'll be impossible to know if his statements are a smokescreen for a negotiation with the Syrians or in fact a reality.

Also into this mix is this Arab League proposal, first offered in 2002 by the Saudis, which has been offered again, that all the Arab states would recognize Israel if it went back to the pre-1967 borders and worked out a deal on Palestinian refugees. King Abdullah II, who met with President Obama in Washington a couple of weeks ago, has been going around the area talking up this proposal--in fact expanding it to say that all the fifty-seven Muslim countries of the world would recognize Israel. Abdullah's talk in Damascus sounded as if he and Obama were working on this plan. Has Obama said much about this proposal?

He's welcomed it. It's an important part of his approach because the potential for turning a two-state solution into a fifty-seven state solution has some attraction because it can convey to Israelis that there's something much bigger out there than a difficult deal with the Palestinians, whom they don't trust; that Israel can achieve an end to the conflict with the Arab states with recognition and normalization of relations.

Secondly, and I think here there's convergence between Obama and Netanyahu, is the sense that the Arab states and Israel face a common threat from Iran. This is something that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special Middle East negotiator George Mitchell both remarked upon in their initial soundings of the Arab leaders at the beginning of the administration. What was on their minds was that the challenge comes from Iran much more than the challenge of peacemaking. There is an opportunity, through promoting a resolution to the Palestinian problem, to build a virtual alliance between the United States, the Arab states, and Israel designed to block Iran's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. It works both ways: peacemaking can deny Iran's opportunity for meddling in the backyards of the Arab states and Israel, and at the same time the threat from Iran can help bring the Arabs and Israelis together.

Netanyahu has an intense interest in showing that he can handle the all-important relationship between the United States and Israel, particularly when there is such a popular [U.S.] president.

One of the problems is that Obama at this moment is trying to get some kind of dialogue with Iran. I suppose there's a limit to how tough he can sound on Iran right now. The Israelis have called for some time limit on these efforts. What will happen?

Let me address the issue of toughness. It's important as part of the broader strategy of the president that he pursue these initiatives simultaneously with an effort to engage Iran and an effort to promote Arab-Israeli peace. They can create a symbiotic dynamic that can help on both fronts. There's nothing inconsistent with engaging Iran as we work with the Arabs and Israelis to try and roll back their efforts to subvert peacemaking, and at the same time, go around talking to the Russians and Chinese about sanctions that would be enhanced if Iran doesn't take the offer for engagement seriously. It's all part of a complex choreography designed to signal to the Iranians that they need to make a choice. One way leads through the door that has now been opened to a normal relationship with the United States and the international community that takes account of Iran's legitimate interests and security concerns. The other way leads to increasing isolation and hardship as a new peaceful order is established in the region of which Iran is not a part because they've chosen not to be a part. That's the basic game plan.

Are we headed toward another Madrid Conference, where everyone gets together, as was organized by President George H.W. Bush in 1991?

Look, there's a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach that I think needs to be pursued simultaneously. The bottom-up approach is what Netanyahu prefers: to build the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, to build the Palestinian security services, to start a political process without deciding what the end game actually is, and basically helping Palestinians build institutions and self-government. The top-down approach is to bring the Arab states into the process to create an umbrella which can oversee final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon, which is designed to try and resolve the outstanding issues and then have them implemented through the bottom-up approach. I think that that is the preference of the Arab states. President Obama has yet to indicate which approach he wants to pursue. I believe that the best way is to combine the two and pursue them simultaneously. That could well require a summit meeting at some point to provide a real manifestation of this offer of a fifty-seven-state solution that King Abdullah is now promoting.

This recalls to me the Carter administration's efforts back in the 1970s to have a universal meeting to discuss peace in the Middle East. It got nowhere, and finally President Anwar Sadat of Egypt said, "I'll make my own deal with Israel." Have times changed?

I don't think that President Obama has yet decided on the top-down approach. The top-down approach doesn't have to be a repeat of what Jimmy Carter pursued. What I think is clear is that there's an opportunity to bring the Arab states into the process. That can possibly be done with the bottom-up approach with the Arab states responding to confidence-building measures taken by Israel, such as a settlements freeze that is on President Obama's agenda that we've heard from Vice President Biden [Biden told the AIPAC conference that Israel should suspend building new settlements in the West Bank]. One of the things we'll have to see is what the Arab states will be prepared to exchange for a real settlements freeze.

At a certain point it will be important, sooner rather than later, to create an umbrella for final status negotiations that sends a signal to all the parties that there is serious international support for the effort. We'll have to see how that develops. That it invokes the experience of the early Carter administration is important for a different reason: what you had then and what you have now is an American president determined to make peace. What that does is to change the calculations of all of the players in the region. In Carter's case, he was pursuing the Syrians, and Sadat stood up and announced he was going to Jerusalem instead. It's unpredictable what exactly will turn up as a result. But the fact that an American president is determined and persistent to make peace has the potential to produce unexpected developments. There are these moments in Middle Eastern history that have turned out to be defining moments, many of them produced by American actions or inaction.

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