Peres, in DC, again plays the role of Netanyahu’s scout

Analysis: Warm embrace of Peres shouldn't be interpreted as reflection of what awaits the prime minister when he goes to Washington himself.

President Shimon Peres in Switzerland 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
President Shimon Peres in Switzerland 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
The last time President Shimon Peres met US President Barack Obama was in May 2009, just two weeks before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was scheduled to meet the new US president.
That visit by Peres was widely considered both a “scouting” trip, to give Netanyahu an idea of what he would meet up with in the Oval Office, and an effort by a man widely associated with the peace process to “soften” Obama up a bit before Netanyahu’s visit.
It didn’t work.
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Netanyahu’s first visit with Obama was very difficult, marked by sharp disagreements over both settlements – that was the visit in which Obama called for a complete settlement halt – and Iran.
That first visit set a decidedly negative tone that characterized the relationship between the two men during their first year in office.
Much has transpired since then – in the Netanyahu- Obama relationship, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East – but Netanyahu, it seems, still needs Peres to pave his way to Washington, where he is scheduled to visit again in May.
Peres is scheduled to see Obama on Tuesday afternoon for a meeting that Peres initiated to talk about regional developments and the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
And Peres, according to sources both in his office and in Netanyahu’s, is going to the meeting with Netanyahu’s blessing and after close coordination with him.
Netanyahu obviously knows Peres’s position that the upheavals in the Middle East make it imperative to try and quickly come to an agreement with the Palestinians before a new Middle East order is set, so that when the rulers of this new order come to power, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will no longer be at the top of the regional agenda.
The idea behind this way of thinking is that it would be unwise for Israel to hunker down and just wait to see how things develop in the region; rather, it is smarter for it to get ahead of the curve and set facts on the ground that will then become givens when the new rulers come into power.
It is likely that how exactly Israel can “get ahead of the curve” – and how the US can help – will be the topic of the Peres-Obama talks.
As in May 2009, this visit seems both an attempt by Netanyahu to scout out Obama’s thinking, and an effort to soften up the president with a message that Israel also realizes the dramatic events necessitate enhanced efforts with the Palestinians, but needs US assistance in making that possible.
Netanyahu’s choice of messenger – or scout – says much about Israel’s current political constellation.
In the past, for instance, Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert, when they served as prime minister, could hold a meeting with then-US president George W. Bush without first having to send an emissary of goodwill. Netanyahu and Obama, obviously, don’t share that type of relationship.
Under “normal” circumstances, the foreign minister would serve as the prime minister’s scout abroad. But since Avigdor Lieberman has essentially removed himself from the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, there is nothing really for him to do in the US – so he goes there most infrequently, and when he does, he generally limits himself to New York and meetings with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In the absence of a foreign minister who was a welcome guest in Washington, Defense Minister Ehud Barak filled that role for months – until he started to lose his luster in Washington, both because he lost his political strength when he broke away from the Labor Party, and because, as some have argued, he proved unable to “deliver” Netanyahu.
Which leaves Peres – the country’s indefatigable president who is always welcomed with open arms in Washington.
But if the May 2009 Peres meeting with Obama is any indication, a warm embrace of Peres – even in the capacity of Netanyahu’s scout – should not be interpreted as any reflection of what awaits the prime minister when he follows his reconnoiter and goes to Washington himself.