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TNR: Road Block: How Far Apart Are Netanyahu And Obama Really?

May 25, 2011


In this piece for The New Republic, William Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and contributing editor, looks at the diverging priorities and strained relationship between Netanyahu and Obama.

In his State Department speech last week, Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet to Benjamin Netanyahu. In the Oval Office a day later, and more fully in an address to Congress yesterday, Netanyahu picked it up and threw it right back.

The question now is whether this clash can be turned into a new understanding between the United States and Israel that improves the prospects for the two-state solution both parties say they want. To bring this about, Obama will have to make further tweaks to his approach and rethink his declared stance on Palestinian refugees, among other matters. For his part, Netanyahu will have to accept the fact that events have overtaken key aspects of the 2004 agreement between the Bush administration and former Prime Minister Sharon. If peace is possible, it is only along the lines former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas explored during their 2006-2008 negotiations.


Obstacles to such a meeting of the minds between Obama and Netanyahu begin at the personal level. Whatever they may say in public, these two leaders genuinely dislike each other. Obama regards Netanyahu as an untrustworthy obstructionist; Netanyahu regards Obama as a blundering naïf.

Second, they disagree about the prospects presented by the status quo. Obama believes that changes on the ground have made it more dangerous to stand pat than to move forward, while Netanyahu believes the reverse. Obama, to his credit, has offered a clear and coherent argument for his position: The demography of the West Bank is shifting to Israel's disadvantage; technological changes are making it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of genuine peace; as democratic movements surge throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Arab publics must see that peace is possible; and as the “international community” is becoming increasingly impatient, Israel is becoming more and more isolated. Resuming peace talks, the argument continues, is the only way of heading off a confrontation at the United Nations this summer that will leave Israel and the United States standing alone, not only against the developing world, but most of Europe as well.

For his part, Netanyahu believes that the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East makes peace harder, not easier, to achieve and renders the status quo, for all its imperfections, the safer option for the time being. Until a new regime is established in Egypt and new leadership takes power, the future of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—a linchpin of Israel's security—will remain in doubt. The widening gulf between Israel and Turkey's Islamist government is disconcerting. It may well be that changes in the region catalyzed the rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, which only made a bad situation worse.

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