Diplomacy: Big speech or big sleep?

The Fatah-Hamas deal and the killing of bin Laden may have saved Netanyahu the need to mollify a frustrated White House.

netanyahu obama311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
netanyahu obama311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Palestinians.
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.
This 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.
The 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.
As in 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 message.
“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.
While Makovsky 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 House.
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.
Congress, 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 group.
“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 Laden.”
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 arrival.
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 gesture.
“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.”