When Obama Meets With Netanyahu

Like most of their previous meetings, the one taking place on Friday between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will occur under a dark cloud: a yawning expectations gap on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

This isn’t a tactical or temporary problem; it reflects fundamentally different priorities and politics, sharpened by a conflict of personalities.

The meeting may end cordially enough; nobody wants a fight over a nonexistent peace process. In fact, the Hamas-Fatah unity accord and Syrian-orchestrated border clashes have made it tougher for President Obama to press Israel. But tensions will smolder, and the gap between what America expects from Israel and what the Israelis can deliver will continue to grow at the expense of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and any prospects for serious negotiations.

For Barack Obama, fresh from his triumph over Osama bin Laden, the absence of progress on the peace process must be a source of great frustration. With the exception of Jimmy Carter, no American president has come out so early and hard on this issue. Twenty months in, he has little to show for it.

Negotiations can’t produce results right now — the gaps are too great — yet the absence of a process, particularly against the backdrop of momentous changes in the Arab world, is a problem. The president has bought the logic that American credibility in the region is dependent on a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Now more than ever, he’s being told, with acquiescent autocrats like Hosni Mubarak gone, the Arab street will hold America responsible for the impasse.

In the president’s mind, it’s probably only a hop, skip and jump to blaming Netanyahu. After all, the fact that the Obama administration spent almost 20 months pressing Israel for a settlements freeze indicates where the president thinks the problem is.

Bill Clinton was also frustrated with Netanyahu (“who’s the [expletive] superpower here,” an exasperated Clinton exploded after their first meeting) but the former president understood the Israeli as a politician. Obama doesn’t seem to much care about Netanyahu’s politics; he sees him standing in the way.

Netanyahu comes to Washington nervous about what President Obama may say or do, but rather confident he can parry the pressure. Unlike Obama, Netanyahu sees recent events in the Arab world as a glass half empty, not half full. Uncertainties abound: Mubarak is gone, Bashar al-Assad may be going, and Mahmoud Abbas has gotten into bed with Hamas. And the international community, now focused on other pariahs (Syria and Libya), has forgotten about what to Israel is the real threat (Iran).

There are times, to be sure, when “Bibi” Netanyahu, the tough-talking Likud pol, is at war with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister who wants to do great things. I’m not sure now is one of them.

Today, a real peace process for him means a wrecked coalition, possibly new elections, and new opportunities for political rivals, particularly Tzipi Livni. It also would mean a moment of truth for Netanyahu, when he would have to cross ideological red lines on Jerusalem and borders. In his gut, Netanyahu does not trust the Arabs; nor does he trust the would-be peace broker in the White House.

For these reasons, Netanyahu will be strongly tempted to play it safe. Not only is the U.S. Congressional math on his side, but so are Palestinian politics. The recent unity deal allied Hamas with Fatah without an attendant recognition of Israel’s right to exist or rejection of “armed struggle.” Who could expect an Israeli leader to make concessions under those circumstances?

There’s talk of Obama giving a big speech and laying out American ideas on the Middle East after the Netanyahu visit. But it’s debatable whether that would change anything, particularly in the wake of the Fatah-Hamas union. It’s also not a great idea from a negotiator’s point of view to lay out American ideas and principles when they can be picked apart and devalued months before talks could begin.

Instead of such public diplomacy, the president night try to see what he can get out of Netanyahu privately in exchange for a joint strategy against Palestinian statehood, and then try to work — again, quietly — with Mahmoud Abbas.

It’s an uphill battle. But it will keep things alive. One thing is clear; a push for a moment of truth now, a big speech, a demand for answers to tough questions, and the peace process will really be D.O.A.

By Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.

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