A year has passed since President Obama vowed the US would not to turn its back on the Palestinians and their “aspiration for ... a state of their own.” On Tuesday he meets with the one man most able to create that new state: Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel.
Their talks at the White House will have many purposes, such as lessening the estrangement between the two leaders and bolstering US support of Israel at a time when it is very isolated. But Mr. Obama should not forget his promise to the Palestinians and must extract concessions from Mr. Netanyahu.
The clock is ticking for concessions – from both sides.
In September, a 10-month freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is due to end. Without a renewal of the freeze – which Netanyahu only imposed under pressure from Obama – the Palestinians led by President Mahmoud Abbas will not continue their indirect (or “proximity”) negotiations with Israel.
Also in September, the Arab League’s support of those talks will end, which would give Mr. Abbas an excuse to bow out.
Extending both the settlement freeze and the League’s support of talks is Obama’s immediate goal. But the more difficult of the two is the freeze, as the awkward coalition of Israeli political parties that Netanyahu heads is anything but secure. Even now the United States must deal with a variety of Israeli leaders, from the dovish defense minister, Ehud Barak, to the hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
In fact, Obama’s juggling act extends to the various Jewish groups in the US that take differing lines toward the concessions that Israel should, or should not, make. The juggling is particularly difficult before the coming November elections in the US and with Netanyahu planning to make his own pitch to American Jewish leaders the day after his July 6 White House meeting.
Obama should not, however, operate his Middle East policy out of political fear. He has already shown a willingness to stand up to Netanyahu, whose own views on a peace deal remain an enigma to everyone, apparently, but himself.
And the president has done much for Israel this year. He won approval for tougher sanctions on Iran from both the United Nations Security Council and Congress. He provided Israel with fresh military assistance and helped it to improve ties with Turkey. He has worked against an international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state.
It’s time for Netanyahu to deliver the support of his coalition for an extension of the freeze and to accept Obama’s ideas on border and security issues that would accommodate the key interests of Israelis and Palestinians.
Much progress has been made in the West Bank over the past couple years to boost the Palestinian economy and improve security for Israel. This provides the basis for a Palestinian state.
If Netanyahu will accept Obama’s proposals during his US visit, the Palestinians might be ready for direct talks. And with an even but firm hand, the US can then serve as the mediator to bring about a solution that has eluded these two peoples for too long.