The first words out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s mouth when he landed in Washington late Sunday evening were pretty innocuous.
“The tango in the Middle East needs at least three,” he said, using this particular dance metaphor for the umpteenth time.
“For years there have been two – Israel and the US. Now it needs to be seen if the Palestinians are also present.”
Taken on their own, these words were unremarkable; rather bland stuff. But they cannot be taken on their own.
No, they must be seen in the context of the interview US President Barack Obama gave Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg that was published as Netanyahu was flying somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on his way to Washington.
In that interview Obama seemed to place the entire onus of responsibility for making a deal with the Palestinians on Netanyahu’s shoulders. In this construct, if Netanyahu would just make the tough decisions, then peace would flow through the region like the Jordan River in the middle of a rainy winter.
In looking at the situation, Obama cited some homespun wisdom imparted to him by his mother: “If there’s something you know you have to do, even if it’s difficult or unpleasant, you might as well just go ahead and do it, because waiting isn’t going to help. When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?” To which Netanyahu, when he landed, essentially replied, “Mr. President, it takes three to dance. We’re there; are the Palestinians?” What was striking about Obama’s construct was that it appeared just a few hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry made a point, in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, to stress that there are indeed expectations of the Palestinians.
Asked whether Monday’s meeting with Obama was Netanyahu’s moment of truth, whether he has “to act for the peace process to be successful,” Kerry responded – in stark contrast to Obama’s theme – that “everybody has to act.”
“This isn’t just a question or a series of questions for Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Kerry said. “He’s been very courageous and he’s made tough decisions with respect to entering into these negotiations and some of the things that he’s indicated he’s willing to do in the negotiations. It’s also up to [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas. The Palestinians need to decide whether or not they’re prepared to compromise, whether or not they’re willing to do some of the things necessary. This is not a burden exclusive to one party or the other.”
While Obama said that Kerry briefed him almost every week on the Middle East process, apparently one briefing point that he missed – or did not accept – was that it is not all up to Netanyahu, and that whether this current stab at an agreement has any more chance of success than previous tries depends not only on what Netanyahu is willing to give, but also – to the same degree – on what Abbas is willing to give.
Netanyahu was not the only one who read with great interest Obama’s interview, and responded to it immediately.
So did Abbas.
Abbas had to like what he heard, especially about the settlements and the likelihood of international pressure on Israel if the process falls apart.
“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction – and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time – if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama said.
“In today’s world,” he continued, “where power is much more diffuse, where the threats that any state or peoples face can come from non-state actors and asymmetrical threats, and where international cooperation is needed in order to deal with those threats, the absence of international goodwill makes you less safe. The condemnation of the international community can translate into a lack of cooperation when it comes to key security interests. It means reduced influence for us, the United States, in issues that are of interest to Israel. It’s survivable, but it is not preferable.”
Obama, in his first meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office in May 2009, made settlements the issue and called for a settlement freeze. The Palestinians, who until that point had never made a total settlement freeze – including in areas beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem – a condition for negotiations, heard Obama and pounced. If this was what the American president was saying, how could they ask for anything less? This essentially killed negotiations for four years.
Now, again, Obama struck the settlement chord, and not only did he hit it, but he coupled this with hints of serious trouble for Israel in the international arena – in international organizations – if Israel does not concede this point.
Abbas got the message, and it didn’t take him 12 hours before he pounced, telling Meretz head Zehava Gal-On, with whom he met in Ramallah, “If the American framework does not resolve fundamental principles on core issues, we will not permit extending the talks, and we will turn to international organizations.”
He also heard what Obama said about the settlements, throwing into the mix new conditions for extending negotiations after Kerry presents a framework agreement.
“The only way we would agree to extend the talks would be if Netanyahu declares a settlement freeze and agrees to free more prisoners beyond the next round, including women, young people, and administrative detainees,” he said.
Obama’s interview, as Goldberg said in a Channel 2 interview Monday night, might have been aimed at showing the Palestinians, who believe Kerry is giving too much to Israel in the framework document, that he is willing to pressure Israel.
Abbas is coming to Washington next week for his own talks with Obama. What will be telling is whether that meeting will be preceded by another Obama interview, only this time one in which Obama publicly takes Abbas to task over issues such as incitement and refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
What will be telling is whether in that interview Obama will say, “When I have a conversation with Abu Mazen, that’s the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. President, then who? How does this get resolved?