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'Critical' Moment for Obama, Netanyahu

Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 6, 2010

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting today in Washington with President Barack Obama comes at a time of continuing tensions between the two allies about Iran as well as peace negotiations. They occur against a backdrop of two "critical" September deadlines, says CFR Middle East expert Robert Danin. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has only until then to show the Arab League progress in the current proximity talks with Israel. Israel's freeze on settlements also ends in September, says Danin, and Obama will be pressed to show progress toward peace at the UN General Assembly meetings that month. "These talks that take place today in the White House are critical for trying to coordinate how to avert there being a September crisis, and a September breakdown in negotiations," says Danin.

This is a meeting that was deferred when Netanyahu had to rush back to Israel because of the Gaza flotilla crisis. What do you expect from it?

This meeting has a couple of components. Firstly, it's an effort by the administration and Israel to demonstrate a positive and strong bilateral relationship, to put to rest the previous tensions that were evident when Netanyahu last visited the White House in March and was left to wait in the Roosevelt room while President Obama went and had dinner with his family. This is a different type of visit. He's being hosted at Blair House. There will be joint press availability. That's one level, and that's the public dimension of it. At the same time, on another level, there's serious work to be done.

Be specific.

We're nearing a very critical moment in early September when a few things converge. First are the proximity talks that special U.S. negotiator George Mitchell has been brokering and is currently in Jerusalem trying to advance. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] was given basically until early September to produce results in the proximity talks by the Arab League. Abu Mazen's window for negotiating could be the proximity talks' end.

The second window we're up against is the expiration of the moratorium on building new Israeli settlements on the West Bank that has been in place for nearly ten months. That expires on September 26, and the central committee of Netanyahu's Likud Party voted last Friday not to renew it--to resume settlement activity when it expires. Thirdly, you have the UN General Assembly convening in mid-September, and traditionally this is the time that the Middle East Quartet [the United States, Russia, the UN, and the EU] will meet, and Obama will be expected to demonstrate some sort of progress. These talks that take place today in the White House are critical for trying to coordinate how to avert there being a September crisis, and a September breakdown in negotiations.

The Israeli press has reported about a meeting Abbas had with Israeli reporters, in which he said he is willing to enter into direct negotiations with the Netanyahu government (JPost) as soon as he hears from Netanyahu regarding Israel's position on borders and security issues. Abbas made it clear that he was happy with the talks with the previous prime minister Ehud Olmert on these issues, and they actually had discussed specifics. Why has Netanyahu not been willing to talk specifics with him?

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian ConflictThere's a story within the story. The issue is the following: The proximity talks are something that neither Israel, nor the United States for that matter, think is the ideal formula. Let's not forget, Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating face to face since the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. So proximity talks, which were the compromise formula to try to get some movement going, is meant to be a stepping stone into direct negotiations. The Israeli condition has been that they will not discuss substantive final status issues in this format. At the same time, Abbas has been loath to enter into open-ended final status negotiations because his fear is that [they would be] open ended, and that Netanyahu could drag them out, and they make no progress, and Abu Mazen has nothing to show for the talks and is embarrassed. So he is looking for assurances either from Netanyahu or from the United States that going into direct, face-to-face talks, there will be some sort of guarantee that [the talks] will either produce results or will be time-based so that they won't drag on indefinitely.

So what has happened, as far as we know, in the five rounds that have taken place, is that the Palestinians have tabled very substantive proposals regarding borders. The Israeli response is, "We are not going to engage in this exercise by proxy."

So what you have are different expectations between the Israelis and Palestinians about what proximity talks are meant to be. You see an effort by both sides not to be blamed for proximity talks failing. So what has happened, as far as we know, in the five rounds that have taken place, is that the Palestinians have tabled very substantive proposals regarding borders. The Israeli response is, "We are not going to engage in this exercise by proxy." If you want to talk about borders, talk to us today. Netanyahu last week said in an interview, "I'm willing to meet with Abu Mazen today, I'm willing to see him in Jerusalem, I'm willing to see him in Ramallah."

Assuming they have direct talks, what would be Netanyahu's bottom-line position?

This is the question that everyone asks. It's one that assumes that Netanyahu himself knows. Let's look at what has happened both to Netanyahu in the past and other prime ministers when they went into negotiations. Netanyahu was the first prime minster to actually agree to ceding any parts of what the Israelis call Judea and Samaria by signing the Hebron Accord in 1997 with Yasser Arafat [the Palestine Liberation Organization leader]. He then went on to sign the Wye Accord in 1998, which transferred further territories in the West Bank. Netanyahu of course is from the Likud Party, which traditionally has avowed the notion of a greater Israel. Secondly, we saw both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Olmert adopting very tough positions at the outset and moving quite dramatically to positions no one expected them to take. Sharon evacuated Gaza unilaterally and dismantled settlements in the West Bank. Olmert put forward a proposal that would have ceded virtually all of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem.

That deal did not come to fruition, and now President Abbas is saying that that deal could have been closed. That's one of those hypotheticals we'll never know. But the point is, I don't think that we need to worry too much about where Netanyahu's bottom line is. What we need to get is an assurance from him that he will negotiate in earnest and that this will be a priority issue for his government, that he senses the urgency of reaching a deal and that he believes that he has a partner on the Palestinian side. From wherever he starts, his position going into negotiations very well can evolve over time, as has taken place with the previous prime ministers, so that's why I'm not sure trying to determine his bottom line today necessarily is all that fruitful.

What do you think Obama wants to achieve from these talks?

What Obama is looking for is a display of seriousness from Netanyahu on several fronts. First of all, there is the issue of the settlement moratorium that will expire in September. Without a renewal of the settlement moratorium, it's unthinkable that Abbas will continue the proximity talks or go into direct negotiations. So one issue he will be pressing Netanyahu on is the issue of the settlement moratorium.

He probably won't get a clear answer from Netanyahu. Prior to his departure for the United States, Netanyahu met with the inner cabinet group of seven to discuss what the position would be and there was, not surprisingly, a lack of unanimity over the Israeli position. Some vehemently opposed renewing the settlement moratorium, others calling for a partial renewal, say in territories to the east of the security barrier, and allowing settlement growth to continue or resume on the areas west of the barrier. That was reportedly one compromise that was put forward. Netanyahu need not necessarily adhere to any position that this group of seven puts forward, but he is going to be reluctant to reveal his hand prematurely or at least in a very public way, because what he's starting to face is the mobilization of the settlers back in Israel who are starting to say that if he resumes the settlement moratorium, they're going to be quite active in opposing him in a way that they were not the first time.

We don't need to worry too much about where Netanyahu's bottom line is. What we need is an assurance that he will negotiate in earnest and that this will be a priority issue for his government, that he senses the urgency of reaching a deal and that he believes that he has a partner on the Palestinian side.

The second area that Obama will be looking for is further action on the ground in fulfillment of Israel's pledge to lift the blockade on non-lethal goods going into Gaza. When the Israelis announced on June 20 that they would ease the blockade, they essentially said they would go from a list that is in place that enumerates those goods that can go into Gaza, and shift to list of goods that cannot go into Gaza. That list has not yet come forward, and President Obama will be looking for that list. He will want to know that Israel is shifting to this approach and will want to see real and substantive change at the crossings, allowing goods to go into Gaza. A further issue related to that will be the issue of exports from Gaza, where the Israeli position has been that there should not be any exports from Gaza.

What about Iran? Clearly the Israelis seem much more concerned about Iran's nuclear development than the United States.

For Netanyahu, Iran is a strategic threat and the strategic priority. There is a certain disconnect between Obama and Netanyahu on this. In one sense you have Netanyahu saying, "Iran is the impending threat; this is the issue that really is priority No. 1--not only for Israel, but for the other countries in the Middle East, and should be the priority for the United States." There is a sense of incredulity in Israel as to why the United States is so focused on the Palestinian issue when they should be focused No. 1 on Iran.

President Obama is saying, "Look I'm focused on Iran, I'm working on that issue very assiduously." Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was just in Israel for his eleventh visit this year, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak was here in Washington last week, and a great deal of that focused on Iran. What Obama is saying is, "I'm focused on Iran, but for me to be able to conduct the diplomacy that I need to conduct, you, Israel, need to help me advance the peace process. It's not a necessary precondition, but it definitely helps the diplomatic environment for making progress on Iran by having forward-movement on the peace process."

A major political story in Israel last week was a protest march led by the Shalit family, seeking to pressure the government to expedite the trade of Palestinian prisoners for their son. Is this going anywhere?

It's hard to know. This is a negotiation that is conducted in the shadows. It's been a wrenching debate in Israel. On the one hand, you have Hamas seeking an exorbitant price for Israel to pay for the exchange of Corporal Gilad Shalit. Reportedly the deal on the table calls for the transfer of some one thousand Palestinian prisoners, 450 of whom are serious terrorists, in exchange for Corporal Shalit. The Israelis claim that their studies show that the percentage of recidivism for released terrorists is quite high, so there are many in Israel who are saying that if you let these people out and let them go to the West Bank, they will return to terrorism and kill more Israelis.

At the same time, there's an ethos within the Israeli army that Israel and the IDF will do everything to bring back its soldiers, so therefore you have the military basically saying we should pay this high price. Netanyahu, like Olmert before him, is under tremendous pressure. On the one hand, there is the impulse not to negotiate with terrorists, and not to ransom hostages, and especially at such a high price. On the other hand, there is a sense among the Israeli people that Israel needs to do everything it can to bring its boys and girls home.

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