Analysis: A primer to the Washington summit

What will really be on the table when the two leaders meet?

obama netanyahu bring it on 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
obama netanyahu bring it on 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
After weeks of planning, and months of speculation - much of it of the doomsday variety, about how a conservative Israeli prime minister will be unable to get along well with a liberal US President - Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama will finally huddle together at 10:30 Monday morning in the Oval Office. What follows are key points to keep in mind when evaluating the meeting. Personal relations Summit meetings at this level have two components, a policy component and a personal one. In this case the personal component - since this is the first meeting of the two men since they have taken over leadership of their respective countries - is no less important, and perhaps even more important, then the policy component. Netanyahu understands this, and will strive - according to senior officials - to develop a positive relationship based on mutual trust. Netanyahu understands this particularly well, especially since he failed to develop that type of relationship during his first tenure as prime minister with then-president Bill Clinton. Netanyahu would do well to take a page out of Ariel Sharon's playbook. Sharon, during his first meetings with then-US president George W. Bush, said that while Israel and the US would not always see eye to eye, "there would be no surprises," and that he would be frank with the US and "do what he said he would do and always mean what he said" to the US president. Though there will be those pundits who will parse every phrase, and scrutinize every piece of "body language" when Netanyahu and Obama come before the cameras following their meeting on Monday, it will be difficult to judge at this time whether the two "clicked." That will only be apparent to the public with time. Iran Iran will be the first and most important item on the agenda, with the two leaders set to discuss the range of options available for stopping or slowing down the Iranian nuclear drive. Netanyahu will be seeking clarity about what the US policy of engagement entails, and the US will try to decipher whether, and if, Israel is seriously contemplating a military strike. One of the key points of clarity that Netanyahu will be seeking will be whether or not the administration has a deadline for its engagement with Iran. In addition, Netanyahu will want to hear from the president what he plans to do if the Iranians don't respond positively to his outreach and continue to enrich uranium. US Congressman Robert Wexler told The Jerusalem Post last week that Obama is unlikely to sit down with a calendar and give Netanyahu firm dates and deadlines, but will most likely provide him with greater clarity of the US position. Obama, in an interview with Newsweek published on Saturday, said he understood that Israel considered Iran an existential threat, saying, "I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are." At the same time, he said that "I can make an argument to Israel as an ally that the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to some of the other alternatives." 'Bushehr for Yitzhar': Linking Iran and the Palestinian track In the run-up to the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, there have been selected leaks, and some comments by high-ranking officials like National Security Advisor Gen (ret.) James Jones, that the US was linking the Palestinian issue and the Iranian one. In other words, that if Israel wants to see movement regarding Iran, it would have to show movement on the Palestinian track. Israeli officials find this approach extremely difficult to understand. It is highly unlikely that if Israel were to remove settlement outposts,the Iranians would say, "OK, there is no need to go ahead with the nuclear program." The issue, rather, is actually much more nuanced. Statements in advance of the meeting regarding linkage were interpreted in diplomatic circles as a signal to Netanyahu, who has been emphasizing the Iranian issue, that he should not think that just because Iran is looming large on the horizon, he can be inactive on the Palestinian track. At the same time, the US does believe it will have more credibility in the Arab world if there was a serious diplomatic process with the Palestinians. Such a process, according to this thinking, would give the US more leverage when it goes to various "moderate" Arab countries for help in isolating Iran, or assistance in dealing with outer key issues in the region - such as Iraq. These "moderate" Arab regimes, according to the prevalent thinking in Washington, would be less embarrassed to work together with the US on a variety of issues if there were credible Israeli-Palestinian negotiations going on. US Mideast policy While Netanyahu is expected to present to the US his ideas of how to move forward on the diplomatic front, following his much-discussed policy review, the US policy review continues. In other words, the US position on the Middle East is still very much a work in progress, with the meeting with Netanyahu just one of a series Obama will hold before the US unveils its Mideast policy, expected sometime in June. Obama has already met Jordan's King Abdullah, and within the next two weeks will also be meeting Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He is also expected to meet Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah before unveiling his Mideast plans. It is worth noting that this is how Obama works: he meets with everyone, hears all sides, and then makes decisions. So far this has worked to Israel's advantage. Earlier in the year, and in contrast to the policy of his predecessor, Obama decided to send a US representative to the preparatory meeting for Durban II, something that caused no small amount of distress in Israel and among Jewish groups in the US. That US representative heard what was said, and reported back. On that basis, the US decided not to attend the Durban II conference in Geneva. The same modus operandi was at work regarding Syria. Obama dispatched two envoys to Syria twice, heard what they reported back from Damascus, did not like what he heard,and last week extended US financial and diplomatic sanctions against Syria. If Bush was known for shooting from the hip, Obama - ever the community organizer - prefers to hear everyone out before making an educated decision. On Monday he will be giving Israel its hearing. 'Two states for two peoples' Although the US policy is still a work in progress, there have already emerged two policy "pillars." The first is that a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict must be seen within the context of an integrated approach to the whole region, and the second is that the resolution to the conflict will be based on two states for two peoples. Regarding "two states," Obama is looking for some kind of formula about the eventuality of two states with which Netanyahu can live. What will most likely emerge from the Monday meeting is a general statement that could be interpreted as an Israel commitment to a two-state solution. While Obama talks about two full states, officials close to Netanyahu talk about an eventual Palestinian state that will be demilitarized and not able to enter into treaties, as well as not being in complete control of its airspace or water resources. This idea is one that Washington is familiar with; this was the position presented by Ehud Barak when he was prime minister, and also one articulated to a large degree by Tzipi Livni when she was foreign minister. There is a good deal of realism in DC, and no one in the administration actually thinks that a Palestinian state will emerge tomorrow. What the administration wants to see is a commitment toward a direction, and as part of this direction, it wants to hear Netanyahu express a wiliness to make some concession regarding settlements. Politics Obama is an astute politician; this is evident by the fact that he became president after serving only four years in the senate. This political instinct works on Netanyahu's behalf, as it is not in the president's interest to push for a fight with Israel. With a large part of Congress, and a large part of the American public, sympathetic to Israel, it is not in Obama's political interest to alienate his supporters by pushing for an overall change in the tone of ties with Israel. Obama, despite the wishes of some, has no interest in trying to "put Israel in its place," something that would generate grueling political battles. Rather, Obama the politician is looking to hear from Netanyahu how much flexibility he has, and what he will be willing to do - considering his own political restraints - to move the process forward Netanyahu's political weakness Despite some speculation that last week's bruising budget battle has made Netanyahu seem weak and pliable in the US, this has not necessarily been the perspective in Washington. Although questions were raised about how Netanyahu tactically handled the budget issue, with some saying he should have foreseen the opposition when the government put forth various cuts, others were saying that the episode showed that the Likud-Labor axis inside the government is strong. The US is not interested in forcing a crisis with Israel now - perhaps in the hope that it would topple Netanyahu and possibly bring a change in government with Livni as its head - for the simple reason that there is no certainty that this would happen. In fact, if the US triggered a crisis, there could be a backlash inside Israel that could even further strengthen the right bloc. Furthermore, Livni's failure last year to form a government when she had a chance after Ehud Olmert's resignation, and her inability to do so in February even though Kadima beat Likud in the elections, has not instilled confidence in the administration that she would have any greater success the next time around. There is also a sense in Washington that with all the pressing issues in the Mideast, what is definitely not needed at this time is another "twilight" period without an Israeli government able to make decisions. The US was a bit confused by Olmert's final sprint toward an agreement with the Syrians and the Palestinians, even after he formally resigned, wondering what degree of legitimacy he had for those moves. It now favors a government that - even though it might not agree with all its policies - has a mandate and legitimacy to act.