Analysis: Still waiting for Obama's get-tough-with-Abbas interview

Unlike before sitdown with Prime Minister Netanyahu, US President Obama didn't precede meeting with PA President Abbas with a get-tough interview.

US President Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On March 2, the day before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met US President Barack Obama, Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg published an hour-long interview with Obama in which he essentially placed the onus for the stalemate in the peace negotiations on Netanyahu’s shoulders.
Netanyahu could do more, Obama said, and needed to do more. If not, then Israel would face a bleak future indeed. It was a rude Washington welcome for the prime minister.
On Monday
, the day that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met Obama, Goldberg wrote another piece for Bloomberg View. But this one was just Goldberg’s musings, not a follow-up interview where the president might publicly get tough with Abbas.
Goldberg wrote that he hoped Obama would pressure Abbas to meet Netanyahu halfway on the Jewish state issue.
But Goldberg’s wishing is not exactly the same as if the president had once again taken the opportunity to spell out the situation clearly and explicitly for all to see.
And therein lies the problem. Obama will publicly get tough with Netanyahu, but not with Abbas.
“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,” Obama said in his interview with Goldberg. “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?”
Those words were coupled with other arm-twisting remarks. For instance, that if the current diplomatic process breaks down, the US may be unable to defend Israel in international forums, and that if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach... It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”
Compare that with what he told Abbas in the toughest part of his public statements with the Palestinian Authority president before their meeting: “It’s very hard, it’s very challenging,” he said of the diplomatic process. “We’re going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re able to move it forward.”
Ouch! US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Thursday that Netanyahu’s demand for recognition of a Jewish state was a mistake, noted the day before that the trust between the sides now was at its lowest ebb since the beginning of the current negotiations in July.
He got the second part right. And while there are constant demands on Israel to build up the Palestinians’ confidence – release Palestinian prisoners, freeze settlements – there is little recognition of the need to build up the Israeli public’s confidence.
“I believe that now is the time for not just the leaders of both sides but also the peoples of both sides to embrace this opportunity for peace,” Obama told Abbas on Monday.
Israelis are going to have problems embracing the process if they don’t believe that pressure is being applied equally.
A February poll taken by the Israel Democracy Institute shows the vast majority of Israeli Jews, some 74 percent, don’t believe that the pressure is being applied evenly.
Another confidence-building measure has to do with recognizing Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.
Kerry said Netanyahu made a “mistake” turning this into an issue. An Israeli Democracy Institute poll in January found that the Jewish public disagrees, with 63% saying this issue is “very important,” and another 14% calling it “moderately important.”
Obama and Kerry have stated on numerous occasions that in their mind Israel is the state of the Jewish people. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the same thing last week in Jerusalem.
But that’s not the problem. Israel doesn’t need Obama, and Kerry, and Cameron, to recognize its historical link to this land. They have never denied it. The Palestinians have. And only if the Palestinians recognize such a link might they eventually be able to convince the Israeli public that they are willing to live in peace next to it, and do not ultimately want to overrun it.
Abbas winked at the recognition issue in his comments with Obama Monday, saying that in 1993 “we recognized the state of Israel.” Kerry mentioned on Thursday that “chairman Arafat in 1988, and again in 2004, confirmed that he agreed it would be a Jewish state.”
While Kerry’s assertions can be debated, getting into an argument over whether Arafat did or did not give a half-nod to Jewishness of the state of Israel makes no real difference to the vast majority of Israelis who cannot remember what Arafat did or did not say.
They do remember, however, Abbas saying “never” when asked about this same issue just 10 days ago. And his adamant refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jews, with all that his adamant refusal implies, will make it difficult indeed for the vast majority of Israelis to get behind a deal.
If Obama wants Israelis to, as he said, “embrace this opportunity for peace,” he will need to get Abbas to show some flexibility. And to do that, he is going to have to get a bit sterner with Abbas than was evident Monday.
If Obama did not want to do so in the Oval Office with Abbas sitting right there by his side, he could have done so in a pre-meeting interview, like the one he gave to Goldberg about Netanyahu. But that parallel interview is one that has not yet taken place – and that is no small part of the problem.