Analysis: Neither PM nor Obama makes Palestinian question top priority

Netanyahu repeated his position that dealing with Iran should be a top priority.

October 2, 2014 09:25
3 minute read.
Obama and Netanyahu

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shakes hands with US President Barack Obama at the White House. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – An Israeli war in Gaza, the dramatic rise of an extremist army and an approaching deadline in talks with Iran have together changed little in the relationship between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The two leaders met at the White House on Wednesday to discuss those issues, surrounded by their top aides and speaking familiar lines on the strength of the US-Israel strategic relationship.
Shortly before the meeting, an NGO publicized a September 24 article about the approval of a two-year-old plans plan to build housing, for what it says will be for both Arab and Jewish Israelis, in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood of Jerusalem. The announcement drew sharp condemnation from the US.

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Still, Iran was on the top of Netanyahu’s priority list, as is always the case. Negotiations between Iran and world powers in New York last week yielded little progress, but should a comprehensive deal come to pass, “Israel will have to make its own judgment” on its quality and worth, one senior administration official said last week.

Netanyahu repeated his position – now a decade old and well known: A nuclear Iran poses the greatest conceivable threat to Israel and the region, more so than the rooting of an Islamist state and far more so than the outcome of the Palestinian conflict.

But a “commonality of interests between Israel and leading Arab states” might be the “out-of-the-box” change required for progress in talks with both Iran and the Palestinian Authority, the prime minister said.

Obama said he would debrief Netanyahu on efforts to combat Islamic State, and said the US hoped to prevent another war featuring “the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed.”

Netanyahu allied himself with the US-led coalition against Islamic State, and made reference to a two-state solution based on “mutual recognition and rock-solid security arrangements.”

But Iran was at the heart of his concerns: Obama knows Tehran “seeks a deal that would lift the tough sanctions you worked so hard to put in place,” he told the president.

“I firmly hope that, under your leadership, that wouldn’t happen,” Netanyahu said, sitting alongside Obama before the press.

The Obama administration has made clear it recognizes Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to global security, to Israel and to the United States. It has also made clear that its standards for a deal are not the same as Netanyahu’s.

The president’s comments suggested an inverse of priorities: similar to his speech at the UN a week earlier, the president uttered only a single sentence in passing mention of Iran’s nuclear program as a “high priority” for the US and the world.

Netanyahu, too, reiterated the message that defined his own UN speech: Militant Islam is marching across the Middle East, tethering together the causes of Hamas in Gaza, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Islamic Republic in Iran.

The Obama administration, and the president himself, have made clear their contempt for a view they consider reductive: after the Iraq War, Washington is keenly aware of the sectarian differences that define the contact sport of politics in the Muslim world.

While the US government has called Iran’s efforts genuine, and its leaders rational actors, Jerusalem rejects this; the Israeli government considers Tehran’s entire effort a deceptive charm offensive.

And while the US government sees Hamas as a terrorist organization, it does not consider the group a threat to US assets or the homeland.

Islamic State is more ruthless, more ambitious and a direct challenge, fundamentally different from Hamas, American officials assert.

Speaking to National Public Radio the day before, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni echoed the prime minister’s remarks. The world is divided into good guys and bad guys, extremists and moderates, she said.

Israel is part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State by its “very nature,” Livni continued, acknowledging that, also by its Jewish nature, it could not actively or publicly participate.

That basic divide is one that Obama has always rejected. The contours of the movements from Gaza to Raqqa in Syria, the root of the hate and the resulting terrorism, is far more nuanced and complicated, sociologically and anthropologically, than the prime minister’s argument would suggest on its face.

And yet the US president’s new, broad and stateless war against extremists, concentrated in the Arab world, has provided Netanyahu with political fodder for his argument. He will assert so publicly and privately, at all opportunities provided.

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