On Sunday, the day before he met Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office, US President Barack Obama went to South Bend, Indiana, to receive an honorary doctorate and deliver a commencement address to the class of 2009.
It was an intriguing scene: an avowed pro-choice president addressing the country's pre-eminent Catholic (read anti-abortion) university. This was a classic case, as the old saying goes, of the illegitimate child speaking at the family reunion.
But, in a testament to his immense rhetorical powers and non-confrontational manner, Obama was able to pull it off.
Okay, he said, we can disagree on abortion, but "let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let's reduce unintended pregnancies. (Applause.) Let's make adoption more available. (Applause.) Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. (Applause.)"
Only the pro-choice Obama could go to Notre Dame and earn applause when talking about abortion. And if he could do that, a senior correspondent for the Al Arabiya Arabic news station said, he should be able to tackle the Middle East. Or, at least, he thinks he will be able to deal with the Middle East.
After meeting this week with Netanyahu in Washington - and following next week's meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - Obama will travel to Cairo in early June, and deliver what is expected to be a major address on US relations with the Islamic world. In that setting (a la Notre Dame for his abortion address?) he will also touch on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Though not expected to unveil a full-blown plan, he is likely to raise, along with the need for a Palestinian state, the issue of the need for the Islamic world to begin making gestures toward Israel.
Both those elements - a Palestinian state and a determined effort to get the Arab world to begin developing ties with Israel at the beginning of the diplomatic process, not only at the end - have emerged as central pillars of the White House's Mideast plan.
But the details of this plan - and, more interestingly, the details of Netanyahu's diplomatic plan - still remain enigmatic, even after the latter's visit to Washington this week. Something rather odd happened when Netanyahu met Obama, after weeks of buildup and speculation, and after much talk of a vaunted "policy review" in Jerusalem: The public is no wiser now about Netanyahu's end-game, of where he is headed, than it was before he set out for DC.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, during his travels earlier this month to European capitals, said repeatedly that Netanyahu would present a plan in Washington, and the picture of where the Israeli leader was headed would become clear. Netanyahu may indeed have presented the broad outlines of a plan to Obama, but he didn't present anything publicly, and instead of the Israeli public's having an idea of what he intends to do, it is left grasping at straws: trying to read between the sentences, nourished on selective leaks to the media, trying to distinguish reality from spin.
Netanyahu's top adviser, Ron Dermer, the head of policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office, said that Netanyahu indeed has a plan, which he outlined for Obama. But, Dermer said, Netanyahu did not "lay a manila envelope" on the president's desk, as it is unwise to unveil each step, or say publicly what Israel is willing to give up, because that would only be an invitation for the other side to ask for more.
Whether this is actually the reason Netanyahu has not made public how he envisions his final agreement with the Palestinians, or whether it has more to do with his fear that revealing his diplomatic hand might chase some of his coalition partners out, one thing is certain: No grand Israeli plan emerged this week. Indeed, on three spring days in Washington, the fog over Israeli policy thickened.
WHAT DID emerge, however, was a completely different style of approaching negotiations with the Palestinians - a style that could be summed up by the mantra Netanyahu made famous during his first term: reciprocity - if they give, they will get; if they don't give, they won't get.
Netanyahu circa 2009 may be different from Netanyahu circa 1996 in many ways - in style, interpersonal relationships, even policy. But the prime minister still believes in that 1996 mantra.
The best example of this can be seen in his continued refusal to say he backs a two-state solution, even though Obama has said it time and time again, most recently in the public statements following their Monday meeting.
To much of the world, Netanyahu's failure to come around on this point is now an obstacle to peace. In Israel, many see his stubbornness as silly, and think he should just say the "T-S" word and be done with it, removing a source of friction and irritation in the critical ties with Obama.
But from Netanyahu's point of view, this is a cardinal issue: Why say Israel is willing to accept a state, before defining what the term "state" means, or before defining what powers a new Palestinian state would have? And why concede, without getting anything in return?
First define the term, Netanyahu argued in Washington, and then maybe Israel can agree to it. If, in the past, the idea was to provide a horizon - the idea >of a state - and then fill in the substance, Netanyahu's approach is the exact opposite: First decide on the substance, and then paint a well-defined horizon. And, in the whole two-state equation, where, exactly - Netanyahu asks - is the reciprocity?
If Netanyahu agrees to a Palestinian state, he wants the Palestinians to recognize that Israel is a Jewish state - something they have not yet been willing to do.
On the Jewish-state issue, Obama agrees with Netanyahu, as was evident by his comment: "It is in US national security interests to assure that Israel's security as an independent Jewish state is maintained."
But on the two-state issue, there is no agreement between the US and Israel. Israel understands it will be unlikely to get the Palestinians to voluntarily give up rights of sovereignty - such as the ability to muster an army, control of what goes in and out through the borders, the right to enter into treaties, and total control of their water and airspace. Jerusalem's hope, however, is that it will be able to reach an understanding on this with the US, which in turn will support its demand on the Palestinians.
The same give-get equation is apparent in Netanyahu's approach to a settlement freeze, another huge sticking point with Washington. Despite clear messages from Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the US expects an across-the-board end to settlement activity, Netanyahu is in no rush.
In a briefing with Israeli reporters after meeting Obama, Netanyahu said it was particularly ingenuous for the world to demand that Israel fulfill its road-map obligation calling for a complete freeze on settlements, while giving the Palestinians a pass on their major obligation to uproot the terrorist infrastructure.
Israel did more than just freeze settlements, as required under the road map, he said. Israel uprooted settlements. At the same time, he argued, not only did the Palestinians not uproot the terrorist infrastructure, but rather turned the Jewless Gaza into a terrorist base against Israel.
NETANYAHU'S UNSTATED subtext is clear: If the world expected Israeli concessions on settlements, as per the road map, it would have to ensure that the Palestinians fulfilled their part of the road map, including uprooting the terrorist infrastructure - something that right now seems impossible, considering Hamas's control of Gaza. Fix that, Netanyahu is saying, and then talk to Jerusalem about a settlement freeze.
Indeed, Uzi Arad, a top Netanyahu aid and the head of the National Security Council, intimated as much, when he responded to a question about what confidence-building measure Israel would make toward the Palestinians. His reply: "What confidence-building measures are they willing to undertake?"
Israel not only wants to see confidence-building measures from the Palestinians, but even more so from the Arab states. And this, at least, is something that Netanyahu and Obama were able to agree on - that the Arab countries needed to begin making gestures toward Israel now, such as opening phone links, or air corridors, or interest sections, and not wait for the end of the process.
THIS APPROACH marks a major divergence from that of former prime minister Ehud Olmert. In 2006, an arrangement was worked out, whereby Olmert would meet a key Saudi personality, and in response would endorse the Saudi peace initiative.
As scripted, in September 2006 - soon after the Second Lebanon War - Olmert went to Amman and met with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian National Security Adviser and former Saudi ambassador to Washington. Shortly after the meeting, Olmert - on a couple of occasions - praised the initiative.
These secret contacts continued, and in November 2008, at least according to former US State Department senior official William Burns, Saudi King Abdullah himself met with President Shimon Peres on the sidelines of a UN meeting in New York.
In the first few weeks of Netanyahu's term, the Saudis, according to Israeli sources involved in the matter, made clear to the Netanyahu government that they would be willing to continue these secret contacts, in exchange for a declaration of a settlement freeze. Netanyahu's government turned down the offer, signaling a different approach: The time for private meetings well off the radar screen was past; now Israel was demanding public gestures for all to see - gestures which could change public attitudes.
The Saudis, both Israel and American officials concur, are unlikely to leap at the opportunity, something made clear by the manner in which the Saudis unequivocally denied any Peres-Abdullah meeting last November. Still, that is what Netanyahu is after, and he - it appears - will not be endorsing the Saudi plan, until he gets something public in return.
While Peres recently praised the plan, saying at the AIPAC conference earlier this month, "The Saudis gave birth to a peace initiative" that marked "a serious U-turn" from previous Arab rejectionism, all Netanyahu would say publicly this week in Washington was that he supported Peres's position. And that the Saudi initiative was a far cry from the "three Arab nos" spelled out at the Khartoum conference following the Six day War: "No peace with Israel; no recognition of Israel; no negotiations with Israel."
But if the Saudis want to hear more from Netanyahu, they will have to give more, something few expect will happen. Unless, of course, Obama can "pull a Notre Dame" in Cairo, and convince the Saudis there are different ways to view opening up to Israel, and that a willingness to look at creative ways to do this is not a complete sell-out of their values. That, however, may be beyond even Obama's considerable rhetorical skills.
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