Analysis: Did Netanyahu pass the Obama test?

Some say the administration is straining to see the positive in PM's speech.

WASHINGTON - In the wake of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's major address Sunday, the Obama administration has publicly been emphasizing the positive nature of the message despite it falling short of US demands that Israel halt settlement growth. The focus on the positive move by Netanyahu is being seen as effort to move past public disagreements with Jerusalem to allay Israeli concerns and find a constructive approach that might include compromise on some points. "The Netanyahu government took a big step forward yesterday in acknowledging for the first time the need for a two-state solution," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday. "I think the president believes that there is a long way to go and many twists and turns in the road to get there, but is pleased thus far with the progress that's being made. And I think yesterday's speech certainly is a big part of that." In his speech, Netanyahu said that "in my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect; each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government." The Obama administration has been pushing for him to embrace a two-state solution, though Netanyahu also said Sunday that it must be a "demilitarized Palestinian state" accompanied by a recognition that Israel is a Jewish state, which Palestinians have so far refused to do. When it came to settlements, the prime minister was less accommodating, as he reiterated that natural growth will continue despite US demands that it stop. "We have no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements. But there is a need to enable the residents to live normal lives, to allow mothers and fathers to raise their children like families elsewhere," he said. Still, members of Congress also welcomed Netanyahu's remarks. "It's encouraging because he's moving in the right direction," said Robert Wexler (D-Florida), one of the Jewish Congressmen closest to US President Barack Obama and someone who has pushed Israel on halting settlements. "There has not been a meeting of the minds between the US and Israel on settlements, but I'm confident that there will be, and I'm confident that Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech is a positive step in the direction of the US and Israel reaching a mutually acceptable position on all the important issues." Yet since the speech - perceived as directed at Washington as much as Israelis - conditions Palestinian statehood in a way likely to make it difficult for the Obama administration to move as quickly as it would like with negotiations, while showing little flexibility on settlements, has led some to suggest the administration is straining to see its positive elements. "This is a way of taking the edge off the tension between the US and Israel in the last few weeks," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They have made a virtue of necessity here, because I'm not sure they wanted to get into a fight with Israel," assessed Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East official. He said that to succeed, the speech would need to "at least give the administration some political time and space [for moving forward] and reduce some of the unhappiness on the part of the administration with what the prime minister hasn't said" on a two-state solution and settlements. Based on the White House reaction, Miller said the speech seemed to have worked, and in the process given Netanyahu some political time and space as well. While the settlement issue was unresolved, the two-state solution got a boost, he said. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly reiterated US demands for a freeze in settlement expansion and declined to back Netanyahu's conditions for Palestinian statehood, though he made some remarks supporting the Israeli perspective. When it came to the prime minister's stipulation that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Kelly said, "You know that yesterday [Obama] said he was committed to the Jewish state of Israel. Senator Mitchell said it. And I'll just let it stand at that." And asked about demilitarization, he responded, "Israel needs to have its security concerns taken very seriously and worked out." He also appeared to address some of the concerns that Israelis have expressed over the link Obama's speech in Cairo made between the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Netanyahu in his speech stressed that "our right to build our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: this is the homeland of the Jewish people, this is where our identity was forged." On Monday, Kelly emphasized, "We are committed to two states living side by side in their historic homeland." Gibbs, in his comments, also said that it was important for both sides to contribute to making progress. Wexler echoed that point when he said, "It shifts the discussion to the Arab world." Yet experts such as Miller didn't think it has changed the dynamic enough to spur the Obama administration to put the ball squarely in the Arabs' court. "Did this give them any leverage to go to the Arabs and say, 'Okay, your turn'?" he asked. "My judgment is no." Tamara Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said it merely reinforced the Obama administrations position that all sides have to contribute, which fits into its overall approach that "they're in it for the long haul." "I think it represents a baby step or two towards where the Obama administration has been heading, but not a great leap," Wittes said. She contended that the Netanyahu government has been testing to get a sense of how serious the Obama administration is about the demands it's been making of Israel. "This is another bid," she said. "It's the second round of bidding, and it's going to be a long poker game."