Analysis: Obama lays down the law...

... and Netanyahu, in a meeting of unequals, struggles to finesse irreconcilable differences.

obama smiles at bibi 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama smiles at bibi 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
While the spin doctors rushed to work behind the scenes as soon as it was over, the reality of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's first White House meeting with President Barack Obama was immediately plain for all to see and hear at their joint mini-press conference. This was a meeting of unequals, a meeting in which the head of the world's most powerful nation, however battered of late, firmly asserted its primacy in the face of a supplicant ally, however feisty. The president, even as he stressed the "extraordinary relationship" between our two countries - the "stalwart" alliance, the "historical" and "emotional" ties - set out his expectations in polite but unmistakable tones. And the prime minister, his own hopes largely unrealized, was reduced to trying to finesse the stark differences. The alternative for Netanyahu, after all, would have been an openly adversarial stance. Three potential areas of disagreement were widely and correctly highlighted in advance of this landmark meeting - on the "two-state" solution, on stopping Iran, and on the connection between them. Some analysts, incorrectly, suggested that, allies that we are, the gaps on all three would be papered over. Far from it. Thoroughly cognizant of Netanyahu's reluctance to formally endorse a sovereign Palestine, the president reiterated his vision of "a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side-by-side in peace and security." No big surprise there. His advisers had made plain in background briefings that he'd stress this commitment. But Obama went further, pushing the prime minister to seize a perceived "historic opportunity to get serious movement," referring positively to progress within the Annapolis process so unloved by the new Israeli coalition, criticizing the Israeli economic pressure on Gaza which was leaving Gazans with "no hope," and urging Israel to honor the road map commitment to a settlement freeze. "I have great confidence in Prime Minister Netanyahu's political skills, but also [in] his historic vision," said Obama, just a little patronizingly. And then, moving into full-blown teacher-to-pupil mode, he added: "I have great confidence that he is going to rise to the occasion." As for Iran, Obama acknowledged dryly that Netanyahu had been "very vocal in his concerns." Doubtless he had. The prime minister's advisers had clarified beforehand that he fully intended to focus on Iran and the threat posed by its march to a nuclear weapons capability. But such focus notwithstanding, out in public, with Iran doubtless watching closely, Netanyahu heard no deadline from Obama on the limits of engagement, just a vague presidential reference to the notion that, by year's end, the administration "should have some sense" of whether Teheran was responding to his carrots where it had ignored the Bush presidency's rhetorical sticks. Worse, Netanyahu heard no presidential mention of the possibility of military action, not even as a last resort. Instead, Obama reached out to the Iranians, saying he sought to "persuade them that it is not in their interest to pursue a nuclear weapon and that they should change course." And if they chose to ignore him? "We are not foreclosing a range of steps..." said Obama - and here Netanyahu would have been waiting with bated breath, only to be disappointed - "... including much stronger international sanctions." Later in the press conference, Obama might even be understood to have lumped Iranian threats against Israel into the same category as Israeli threats against Iran. "We want to achieve a situation where all countries in the region can pursue economic development, commercial ties and trade, and do so without the threat that populations are going to be subject to bombs and destruction," Obama said. "That's what I think the prime minister is interested in. That's what I'm interested in. And I hope that ends up being what the ruling officials in Iran are interested in as well." Finally, where Netanyahu holds that there's little prospect of substantive progress with the Palestinians so long as Iran is traveling along the nuclear path and emboldening Hamas and Islamists everywhere, Obama flatly said the opposite. "If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process," he mused, "I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians - between the Palestinians and the Israelis - then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with the potential Iranian threat." He elaborated, "Imagine how much less mischief Hizbullah or Hamas could do if, in fact, we had moved a Palestinian-Israeli track in a direction that gave the Palestinian people hope. And if Hizbullah and Hamas [are] weakened, imagine how that impacts Iran's ability to make mischief and vice versa." Netanyahu attempted to make the best of a very bad job, beginning by praising Obama to the skies as a "great leader" and a "great friend of Israel." On the Palestinian front, he tried to highlight his objections to an independent Palestine by stressing the dangers it could pose to Israel, but stumbled uncharacteristically with a slightly incoherent formulation: "If we resume negotiations, as we plan to do, then I think that the Palestinians will have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; will have to also enable Israel to have the means to defend itself." On Iran, he thanked Obama for "your firm commitment to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear military capability, and also your statement that you're leaving all options on the table" - even though that was some distance from what the president had said. And on the link between them, Netanyahu's attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable defeated him. Allowing that "there are causal links" between the challenges of peacemaking and stopping Iran, he found himself first proffering the presidential formulation - "It would help, obviously, unite a broad front against Iran if we had peace between Israel and the Palestinians" - before presenting his own - "Conversely, if Iran went nuclear, it would threaten the progress towards peace and destabilize the entire area and disrupt the existing peace agreement." The Netanyahu of a decade ago might have been more forthright in tackling an American president with whom he found himself at such odds. Instead, the Netanyahu of 2009 chose to assert, however implausibly, that "we don't see closely on this. We see exactly eye-to-eye on this." Rather than confrontation in Washington, that is, he opted for confrontation, with familiar rivals and some erstwhile allies, in Jerusalem.