WASHINGTON – Two years and two days after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s
first trip to the Obama White House, he will be making a return visit. Next
Friday, he is due to arrive at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and have a tete-a-tete
with the Leader of the Free World.
But that won’t be his only stop.
Originally invited to Washington to participate in the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference, Netanyahu will be addressing the
10,000-plus expected activists Monday night. On Tuesday, he will make his way to
Capitol Hill to address a joint session of Congress at the invitation of
Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner.
As was the case before his
inaugural visit after reclaiming the premiership in 2009, on this occasion there
was at first widespread speculation that the prime minister would be delivering
an address that laid out a vision for a peace deal between Israelis and
Some of that speculation was fanned by hints his own senior
staff dropped several weeks ago, as well as by analysts viewing it as the most
favorable way to better position himself with the US administration.
was particularly the case because the dominant policy narrative preceding his
visit had been dictated by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who
has threatened to go to the UN to get a unilateral declaration of statehood
endorsed by the majority of countries in the General Assembly.
conventional wisdom determined that Netanyahu would seek to seize the initiative
by throwing down his own peace deal gauntlet, rally the support of Congress and
the White House – which is also eager to avoid a UN showdown – and compel the
Palestinians to change course.
But now the chattering classes have been
talking a different game. They see in the recent inking of a unity government
deal between Abbas’s secular Fatah faction and the Islamic Hamas a blow to the
prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian deal so significant that it has obviated the
need for Netanyahu to take any game-changing action of his own.
2009, when the expected policy speech never materialized, observers are prepared
to find themselves witnessing a repeat.
STILL, MIDDLE East expert David
Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned that Netanyahu
could be making a mistake if he once again didn’t deliver the anticipated
“What’s changed in Washington in the last two years is that
there are suspicions that he doesn’t want to work things out and that it’s just
a sound bite” when Netanyahu talks about his willingness to hold negotiations if
Palestinians would come to the table, Makovsky explained.
was referring to broad suspicions, he said the reaction from the Obama
administration could be particularly harsh.
“It would be received poorly
by the administration because they will see it as grandstanding to the
Republicans,” he said.
As was the case during his first premiership in
the 1990s, the House is now dominated by the GOP. Netanyahu ran into trouble
with the Clinton administration for being perceived as cozying up to the
Republicans as a counterweight to the demands of the Democratic White
Makovsky recommended that Netanyahu be specific about the
territorial concessions that he would be willing to make – if and only if the
Palestinians did their part – to convince listeners that he is genuinely
committed to a deal and the tough steps it would require.
however, might be more accommodating should Netanyahu take a less action-packed
route, given that the Palestinian government, which has received millions of
American dollars, is now set to include a US-branded terrorist
“There are many of members of Congress who would like to see a
more proactive role by the Israeli government in pursuing peace,” said one
Democratic Congressional aide.
“But given what’s happened with Fatah and
Hamas, which is so far away from a constructive peace process, most members of
Congress are more concerned about what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza
than what’s happening in Jerusalem.” He added, “Netanyahu is going to be warmly
received by nearly every member of Congress.”
Aaron David Miller, a
former US Middle East peace negotiator who is now with the Woodrow Wilson
Center, called Abbas’s decision to enter a unity government with Hamas “a large
gift” to Netanyahu.
“It’s almost inconceivable that any pressure could be
applied right now,” he said. “Even if you’re critical of Israel, you’re going to
be hard-pressed to exert leverage at a time when Hamas is... praising Osama bin
Still, Miller held out the possibility that Obama could lay out
parameters of his own for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in a Middle East
address he is likely to give in the coming week, before Netanyahu’s
And that, he noted, would up the ante.
But he saw some
sort of private understandings reached between Obama and Netanyahu as more
likely than the latter feeling sufficient pressure to make a sweeping
“The unity deal increases Bibi’s leverage and undermines
Obama’s,” Miller said.
One official at a Jewish organization who asked
not to be named said that despite the expectation of a major Middle East speech
by Obama in the coming days, he felt it was more likely than not that the
president would largely downplay the peace process.
He pointed out that
other major issues – such as the Arab unrest and the killing of bin Laden –
could understandably take up the lion’s share of the attention, and that Obama
would be loath to raise the prospect of a peace deal once again when the players
seemed so far from reaching one.
“I think he’s pretty much given up on
Netanyahu,” the Jewish leader said. “But I think because of the Hamas-Fatah
agreement, he’s given up on the Palestinians as well.”