Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened a US visit today at the White House, bringing with him a fundamentally different vision of the Middle East than the one presented by President Barack Obama in a major policy speech yesterday.
As Mr. Obama encourages democratic reforms across the Arab world, he meets the leader of a nation deeply wary about the regional instability wrought by six months of Arab uprisings. Israeli officials emphasize that the rising influence of political Islam and efforts by Iran to expand its footprint in the region make concessions for peace riskier than ever.
"If we warned before, our concerns have been reinforced,’’ says Zalman Shoval, a Netanyahu aide. "While we hope that this will lead to democratization, there’s no guarantee…. Nobody really knows the answers.’’
At stake for Israel is the threat of increasing isolation as a result of an upcoming United Nations vote in support of a Palestinian state, which could circumvent the US-led peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel also fears rising attacks on its legitimacy which could bolster boycott movements and potentially turn it into a pariah. It could inspire more mass protests from emboldened Arab neighbors, as seen in the May 15 Nakba demonstrations that drew tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their supporters to protest the "catastrophe" of Jewish independence 63 years ago.
Netanyahu needs to give Obama alternatives
Mr. Netanyahu is particularly wary about pursuing peace with Mahmoud Abbas when the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah leader has just reconciled with the Islamist militant group Hamas. The American president addressed that and other Israeli security concerns, but said peace was more urgent than ever.
"Obama rejected Netanyahu’s claims that the revolutions in the Arab world require a freeze of the peace process until the situation in the region becomes clearer," wrote Aluf Ben, a political commentator for the Israeli daily Haaretz newspaper. "He made it clear that the world is sick of the unending peace process that leads nowhere."
Obama also suggested that delay could be detrimental to Israel's interests. The vacuum in the peace process provides an opening for initiatives like the Palestinian push for United Nations recognition of their sovereignty, as well as mass protests on Israel’s border with Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank – a sign, perhaps, that the Arab Spring has reinvigorated Palestinian nonviolence.
"Just as Americans have a responsibility to understand Israel’s anxieties and fears during an tumult time in the region, it's also incumbent on an Israeli prime minister to demonstrate some courage and creativity in the peace process, otherwise the US is left trying to fend off other initiatives without something to work with,’’ he says.
Indeed, Netanyahu, who will address the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Congress on Tuesday, needs to keep in stride with US policy on the region if the two allies are to be able to head off a Palestinian campaign for United Nations recognition of statehood.
Fresh gesture toward Palestinians expected next week
The US shares Israel’s skittishness about the Palestinian campaign in the UN, which could upend a decades-old American policy of seeking peace deals through bilateral talks rather than international decisions enforced on the sides.
"Netanyahu wants to avoid turning the paradigm of peacemaking upside down, whereby the Palestinian trajectory seems more to be about statehood rather than negotiations," says David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The key is to have a joint strategy and to stave off this change in paradigm, and the way that the US thinks you can do it is to come forward with a concrete ideas where you can demonstrate to the Palestinians you are serious."
Mr. Netanyahu may make some headway on that May 24, when he is expected to unveil a fresh gesture toward the Palestinians in his address to a joint session of Congress.
In a speech to Israel's parliament a week earlier, Netanyahu laid out his principles for a peace agreement. He rejected sharing Jerusalem, a nonstarter for the Palestinians. Others, however, saw his emphasis on Israel’s "blocs" of settlements as a hint that he’d be willing to concede most of the West Bank.
Much common ground remains, however
Last year, Netanyahu and Obama sparred in public over their approach to the peace process – especially settlement expansion – bringing diplomatic ties to a two-decade low.
After Obama declared in his speech Thursday that a future Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 border with Israel, the Israeli leader issued a barbed retort arguing that the line leaves Israel exposed to attack.
Disputes over borders aside, the US and Israel still have much common ground. Obama said Israel should be a Jewish state and has a right to insist on stringent security arrangements as part of a peace deal before getting negotiations over Jerusalem and refugees.