Analysis: Neither breakdown nor breakthrough in DC

Meeting further proves adage that Israel negotiates with the US, and talks to the Palestinians.

netanyahu stresses point to obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu stresses point to obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called radio reporters to Blair House late Monday night to correct what he thought was a gross misrepresentation in Israel: that his talks with US President Barack Obama had ended in failure. In his comments, repeated Tuesday morning after a meeting with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Netanyahu said there had been two important understandings reached with the Americans: one related to the need to keep Iran from achieving nuclear military capability, and the second having to do with the new US emphasis on the need for a regional component to the Palestinian-Israeli track. That Netanyahu felt the need to underline the "success" of the talks only led those who deemed them a failure to point out that he "doth protest too much." But when the dust settles, what will likely be remembered from Netanyahu's maiden trip to the US in his second term as prime minister is that the talks led neither to a breakdown of relations with the US, nor a breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy. Like everything, all was neither good nor bad, positive or negative. There were wide gray areas. First the positive. Netanyahu was able to get the US president to sign off on the idea that the Arab states would have to be involved in the diplomatic process from the beginning, and not wait until the very end of the process to "reward" Israel with trappings of normalization. "The other Arab states have to be more supportive and be bolder in seeking potential normalization with Israel," Obama said, during his press conference with Netanyahu on Monday. Netanyahu said in a briefing with reporters that he felt Obama was very determined on this matter, and that not only was Israel expected to "give," but the Arab countries and the Palestinians would be asked to "give" as well. In short, if Middle East diplomatic policy over the last several years has been characterized by a demand for Israel to offer "confidence-building measures" to the Palestinians, the new administration, at least in Netanyahu's understanding, is going to demand that the Arab world take confidence-building measures toward Israel as a key component of a new diplomatic program that Obama is expected to unveil next month. This call for the Arab world to make some gestures toward Israel is expected to be included in the address Obama plans to give in Cairo in June, an address that - while the Israeli-Arab conflict will be mentioned - is not expected to focus on Israel, but on US relations with the Arab world. Government officials said that while it was not yet clear where or in what forum Obama would unveil his Middle East plan at the end of his policy review, it was possible that his envoy, George Mitchell, would bring the plan to regional leaders at the end of June, and that this would be followed up by an address by the president. Netanyahu made clear that in his mind, the US call for the Arab countries to "give" something to Israel was a success for his demand for reciprocity - that in the diplomatic process Israel be asked not just to give, but to get something tangible as well. Less successful, but not necessarily the disaster that many have characterized, was the discussion on Iran. From Netanyahu's perspective, what was important about Obama's comments on Iran was that for the first time, the president publicly indicated that the engagement would not be open-ended, but would have a deadline. The time limit will not be not the beginning of October - as was widely reported in the press but never confirmed by the US - but "the end of the year." "We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there's a good-faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn't mean that any issue would be resolved by that point, but it does mean that we'll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach," Obama said. Although it is not exactly clear what "the end of the year" means and what would happen at that time, this was a public recognition by Obama that he was committed to stopping the Iranians from achieving nuclear weapons capability. These comments left Netanyahu with the feeling that, as he said, the president viewed preventing Iran from gaining nuclear military capability as an urgent matter, no less urgent than dealing with the Palestinian issue. It is also interesting in the context of Iran that Netanyahu spoke repeatedly of a US commitment to keep Teheran from gaining nuclear weapons capability, leaving open for interpretation the possibility that the US would accept that Iran could pass the nuclear threshold, but - through a variety of safeguards - not be able to actually develop a nuclear weapon. On the whole, then, Israel did not hear everything it would have liked on Iran - at least publicly from Obama - but it was not a complete slap in the face, since Obama did commit to a time frame on engagement for the first time. It is also worth remembering that two days before meeting Netanyahu, Newsweek published an interview in which Obama specifically said, "I've been very clear that I don't take any options off the table with respect to Iran." The biggest area of disagreement during the talks had to do, as was to be expected, with the Palestinian issue, and here the disagreements centered around the two "s" words: settlements and state. Regarding the former, Obama made clear that "settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." Netanyahu made no commitments on the matter. Rather, he made clear that a discussion with the Obama administration on the whole settlement issue - including which understandings had been reached with the Americans in the past - was about to commence. And until that discussion began, he was not willing to make any commitments publicly. This also characterized his approach to the two-state idea. Despite Obama's reiteration of his belief in a two-state solution, Netanyahu continued to refrain from mentioning the word "state." The reason: He doesn't know, nor has it been sufficiently explained, what "state" means in reference to the Palestinians. The two-state vision was predicated on the idea that if a state were held out as the final goal, then the substance of the state would fall into place later. Netanyahu is trying to reverse that, saying, "First let's talk about what a Palestinian state entails - what sovereign right will it have, and what will it not have - and then it will be possible to commit to the idea." First substance, and then terminology. This is a basic substantive difference on this matter with the US, and one that - along with the settlements - will be discussed in the coming weeks. It is interesting to note that these discussions are taking place with the US, not the Palestinians, further proving the adage that Israel negotiates with the US, and talks to the Palestinians. That, at least, remains one fundamental of Middle East diplomacy that seems as much in force now as it was under the Bush and Clinton administrations.