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Core Differences Remain After Netanyahu-Obama Meeting

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 19, 2009

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CFR Senior Fellow Steven A. Cook says U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to project "a friendly partnership" in their White House meeting but appear to remain divided on core issues -- a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis and how to confront Iran. He says Obama and Netanyahu are far apart on whether to press for a two-state solution, with the current Israeli leadership not able to move past the vision of "some kind of notional Palestinian entity." On Iran, Cook says Netanyahu is driven by the view that time is running out on Iran's ability to make nuclear weapons while Obama is willing to prod the Iranians into a dialogue and wait until the end of the year to assess the progress, and then to consider tougher sanctions.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had their first meeting since they both won their elections. From the discussion with the press afterwards in the Oval Office there seemed to be a friendly atmosphere without any breakthrough on the major policy questions. Would you agree?

Yes. I think that neither President Obama nor Prime Minister Netanyahu have an interest in projecting anything but a friendly partnership. The president is quite popular at home and abroad and it's clearly not in Prime Minister Netanyahu's interest to be seemingly at odds with President Obama due to the fact that Israelis consider the U.S.-Israel relationship to be one of those existential issues. President Obama doesn't seem to be someone who wants to get things done through confrontation but rather through co-opting people and bringing them along with his vision. But I think you're right that on those core issues--a two-state solution and what and when to do something about Iran--there doesn't seem to be a meeting of the minds.

The Obama administration is taking the issue of negotiations or engagement with the Iranians very seriously, and putting a very specific timeline on this would be the best way to undermine those negotiations.

President Obama in his remarks specifically called for a two-state solution, which of course has been U.S. policy for years. Netanyahu talked about wanting to start peace talks with the Palestinians immediately, but he didn't use those magic words "two-state solution." Maybe that's for his own political reasons at home. What do you think?

In some respects, I think that's the case. There tends not to be an appreciation of the political pressures that Prime Minister Netanyahu confronts in Israel. Unless he wants to have a revolt within his own party and own coalition, it's probably not in his interest to come right out of the gate and talk about a two-state solution. At the same time though, his advisers and people he's known to be close to articulate a vision that is essentially a non-starter for the Palestinians. It's some kind of notional Palestinian entity. Once again, it is not defined as a state: this entity would not be able to sign treaties with other countries, would not have control of its own airspace, and would not have control of its own radio spectrum.

He said also that the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has declined to do.

Such a declaration †doesn't seem to be too heavy of a lift from the perspective of the people in the United States and elsewhere, but of course 20 percent of Israel's population is non-Jewish, which is why there's significant Palestinian and Arab reluctance to recognize Israel specifically and only as a Jewish state.

On Iran, there are a lot of subtle differences even though both leaders were talking in a friendly way. The Israelis have been urging a deadline on any discussions with Iran about halting its nuclear program. Obama did not seem to be too interested in a deadline, but he said that we ought to have a pretty good idea by the end of the year on where these talks are going.

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

First of all, let's step back and point out that the Israelis have often said that the Iranians are going to have nuclear weapons in two years and time's running out. At the same time, they've consistently accommodated those timelines slipping. Again, there's an issue of Netanyahu's domestic political constraints that are at issue here. The Obama administration is taking the issue of negotiations or engagement with the Iranians very seriously, and putting a very specific timeline on this would be the best way to undermine those negotiations. In an effort to keep it open ended without placing demands on the Iranians, the United States clearly sees this as a way of bringing the Iranians to the table rather than creating a situation where the Iranians do nothing other than dig in their heels.

Obama made it clear that he saw no point in getting into any major diplomatic effort with the Iranians until after their presidential elections, which will occur in mid-June. Another thing I saw in this mini press conference was that Obama made the point that he thought getting major progress on the Israeli-Palestinian, dual-state front would help in getting world focus on the Iranian problem. I didn't get the feeling that that sequence is what Netanyahu necessarily favored.

No. In fact the Israeli position is essentially a mirror opposite of that, which says that in order to have progress on the Palestinian front something needs to be done about the Iranian issue, specifically the nuclear issue. The United States sees the linkage in the other direction: the Palestinian issue provides opportunity for the Iranians to meddle in the Arab street; it puts Arab governments on the defensive, and most of all makes it difficult for the United States to forge a coalition in the region to oppose an Iranian nuclear program and to in essence contain Iran's influence throughout the region. Given the fact that so many in the Muslim world and elsewhere see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the core issue in the region, whether we believe that to be the case or not, there is a certain logic in trying to address the issue in a way that will bring others along with other policy initiatives that the United States would like to pursue in the region.

[T]he two-state solution provides the Holy Grail, the political horizon that the Palestinians need in order to engage in negotiations where they're going to have to make a fair amount of concessions. Peace negotiations only mean, from an Israeli perspective, the same thing as what has been going on intermittently since the early 1990's, which has not produced an agreement.

Both men, in somewhat different ways, pointed out that we now have a growing Arab coalition worried about Iran that could be used to broaden this peace settlement beyond the Palestinians. But there were no specifics on how to get this done.

Arabs do calculate their security threats in a way that is increasingly concerned with Iran, nevertheless, they aren't on board with U.S. or Israeli policy should U.S. policy become a robust one. They do support dialogue with the Iranians, but they don't support dialogue with the Iranians when it will fundamentally undermine their own security. But at the same time the Arabs do not want the United States or Israel to undertake military action against Iran, fearing that it will destabilize the region in a way that would be extraordinarily difficult for these governments to contend with.

I thought it was interesting that Obama on his own volunteered to say that Israel should live up to its commitments to stop building settlements. This is a delicate issue for Netanyahu, although I don't know what his position is right now on settlements.

Generally, the Israeli position and the Netanyahu government's position has been that there's been no new settlement construction. But, in fact, it's impossible to ask Israelis not to build in existing settlements: building in existing settlements, the Israelis say, is entirely appropriate. What they point out is that let's say a family wants to live next to their parents or that we have growing population in the West Bank. That all sounds quite reasonable, but we have very different views on what a settlement freeze is. To the Israelis, if you look at the master plan of settlements in the West Bank, you might have Settlement A, Phase One--which is populated and built up and so forth--and Phase Two of that settlement is outside the current boundaries in Settlement A. They consider building in Phase Two as building in an existing settlement. It's a semantic problem that has very real consequences, because it means expropriating additional territory for Israeli settlements.

Obama meets next week with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Presumably the dialogue will continue. Do you think this will evolve toward a broad U.S. Middle East peace framework?

I don't think we're going back to the Madrid Conference process of big conferences and multiple tracks at multiple levels. But I think there's a real effort on the part of the Obama administration to be actively involved in getting all of the players engaged in a meaningful diplomatic process; which means obviously talking to the Israelis, obviously talking to the Palestinians, and certainly working with our primary Arab interlocutors. Egypt is one of our primary interlocutors, along with Saudi Arabia, and of course Jordan. Those are three critically important states in moving this process forward. This kind of dialogue and engagement on the part of the United States had been missing during the Bush era because the Bush people had a different theory about how you're going to forge peace in the Middle East. The Obama administration has quite a different view, and it means engaging with these governments and getting them together to try and restart these negotiations. Hopefully you'll have some fruitful outcome, although I think in the short run it will be something short of peace.

Obama also volunteered a statement that the humanitarian situation in Gaza had to be improved. There's been a lot of criticism by the UN and others that Israel's been blocking building materials from coming in. There was no response by Netanyahu on that.

This is something that the Israeli security establishment is going to have to come to grips with because they see almost everything that could be used for humanitarian purposes in Gaza as dual use. This is clearly a situation that cannot continue. There's a tremendous amount of suffering in Gaza. The Israelis look like they are purposely engaged in punishing an entire population, and I think that the administration and the president had it just right. The United States has committed $300 million to humanitarian relief in the Gaza strip and there have not been rocket attacks. The Israelis need to step up and cannot keep 1.5 million people in the current situation that they are in the Gaza Strip. It's just an untenable situation for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

When Netanyahu says he's ready for immediate peace talks with the Palestinians, what makes that different from Obama saying we have to restart the two-state policy?

The difference is that the two-state solution provides the Holy Grail, the political horizon that the Palestinians need in order to engage in negotiations where they're going to have to make a fair amount of concessions. Peace negotiations only mean, from an Israeli perspective, the same thing as what has been going on intermittently since the early 1990's, which has not produced an agreement. It does not necessarily include a political horizon. In order to support Mahmoud Abbas and his path of negotiation rather than confrontation, there needs to be a political horizon that Abbas can turn around and sell to his people. Otherwise, it provides extremist groups like Hamas an opportunity to say "look, peace negotiations mean nothing because it gives us nothing. The Israelis aren't going to withdraw, so confrontation is the way to go." If there is a political horizon and if the Israelis agree to it, it only strengthens Mahmoud Abbas.

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