Saturday, May 16, 2009

Obama - Netanyahu Meeting: Clash of the Titans

The upcoming meeting between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be a key indication of the future of the American-Israeli relationship. Despite the recent election of both heads of state, the two have already staked out positions on some critical issues. This post discusses the ideal strategy for both leaders at Monday's meeting.

Netanyahu has two key objectives at the meeting. Firstly, he must nail down a clear American policy vis-a-vis an Israeli strike on Iran. Last week, Obama sent Netanyahu a message warning him not to attack Iran without first notifying the US of an intent to strike. This put Israel in the defensive position of issuing a commitment to inform the US prior to any strike. However, Netanyahu must clarify what circumstances would be grounds for an amber light from the US to carry out such a strike. He also must assess what the damage would be of forgoing an amber light.

Secondly, Netanyahu must begin serious posturing in response to a renewed US interest in Israeli-Palestinian peace. He must continue to present Israel as America's top ally while strengthening Israel's position on key issues, chief among them West Bank settlements. Clash between the US and Israel on this issue is almost guaranteed at Monday's meeting. At the recent AIPAC conference, Vice President Biden identified "not building more settlements" as a key Israeli obligation in the path towards a two-state solution. However, Netanyahu expanded settlements after being elected prime minister the first time in 1996 and supports doing so again. Under pressure from Washington, Netanyahu is likely to agree to a freeze based on certain conditions (cessation of rocket attacks, election of a moderate government in upcoming Palestinian elections). Whether these conditions will be accepted by the US remains to be seen.

For his part, Obama's interest is in setting limits to Israeli policy while not damaging the overall US-Israel relationship. While Obama will affirm the commitment of the US to preserving Israeli security, he will also be critical of settlement building and will warn against an Israeli attack on Iran. He must befriend Netanyahu at the same time that he seeks to fundamentally alter the relationship between the US and Israel. Doing so will be critical to any further progress in the Middle East.

As an added complication, Obama will be very much under the magnifying glass on Monday. He has yet to win over the Israeli public, and a certain elements of the American Jewish constituency still view his Israel policy with suspicion. Obama will also draw the scrutiny of the American Arab community, and America's Arab partners in the Middle East. He faces the challenging of uniting two sworn enemies, and will almost definitely not please everyone.

Obama's best strategy, therefore, is to act with decisiveness. He must confidently demonstrate the firmness of America's Middle East policy. He will also need a confident starting point from which to defend inevitable attacks on his policy in the media and by special interest groups.

In a larger sense, the outcome of Monday's meeting will be indicative of the future of the US-Israel relationship. The sides are headed for a showdown, but the major changes in the relationship are likely to develop slowly over time and not suddenly appear. While the media will make big of the meeting, it will be important for analysts not to jump to conclusions. However, the positions both sides take will be an indication of how the changes in the US-Israel relationship will ultimately play out.


Sources:

1) Aluf Benn, "Obama warns Netanyahu: Don't surprise me with Iran strike,"
Haaretz, May 14, 2009.

2) Aluf Benn, "Israel: U.S. will know before any Iran strike,"
Haaretz, May 15, 2009.

3) Warren P. Strobel and Dion Nissenbaum, "Obama, Israel could be headed for clash over settlements,"
McClatchy Newspapers, May 15, 2009.

4) Stephen Dinan, "Biden: Dismantle West Bank settlements,"
Washington Times, May 5, 2009.

5) "60 Interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu on NBC’s Chat Auditorium- 15 December 1996,"
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 15, 1996.

6) "Obama: US Support for Israel's Security Firm,"
Jerusalem Post, April 1, 2009.

7) "Israeli Views of President Obama and US-Israel Relations,"
The Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the Anti-Defamation League, May 4, 2009.

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