Mapping the possible Netanyahu-Obama fault lines

Potential gaps are already evident between the young administrations of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, shown here at the swearing-in session of the new coalition in the Knesset on March 31, 2009.<br />
 (Amos Ben Gershom / BPH Images)

Potential gaps are already evident between the young administrations of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, shown here at the swearing-in session of the new coalition in the Knesset on March 31, 2009.
(Amos Ben Gershom / BPH Images)

NEWS ANALYSIS

WASHINGTON (JTA) — There are no fissures yet between the young Obama and Netanyahu administrations, but political geologists are mapping the fault lines.

So far, two major potentials for quakes have emerged, both having to do with timing: One concerns the pace of negotiating Palestinian statehood; the other has to do with projections about when Iran’s alleged nuclear program becomes irrevocably dangerous.

The potential for differences about talks with the Palestinians emerged last week when Avigdor Lieberman, the nativist who ran to Benjamin Netanyahu’s right during the election, gave his maiden speech as foreign minister.

"There is one document that binds us and it is not the Annapolis Conference," Lieberman said on April 1, a day after the new government was sworn in, referring to the process launched in late 2007 by the Bush administration. "That has no validity."

Instead, he said, Israel was bound by the "road map," the outline for a two-state solution launched by President George W. Bush in 2003. "It is a binding resolution and it binds this government as well," he said, referring to the U.N. Security Council resolution that sanctified the road map.

Israeli officials and pro-Israel officials in Washington strove last week to emphasize Lieberman’s embrace of the "road map" as the first concrete sign that the Netanyahu government was committed to a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s refusal before assuming power to make it a pillar of his foreign policy — a refusal that drove the moderate Kadima Party away from the coalition — had stirred White House anxiety.

In fact, however, Lieberman’s explicit — even derisive — rejection of the Annapolis process signaled a possible major strategic difference between the United States and Israel.

The road map had emphasized sequencing, a major concession to Israeli demands that the Palestinian Authority shows it is capable of containing terrorist violence before it achieves statehood. The previous administrations in both countries — Olmert in Israel and Bush in the United States — agreed to leapfrog the sequencing requirement after Hamas forced moderates out of the Gaza Strip in 2006; it was no longer considered reasonable to expect Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president, to be responsible for controlling an area where his forces had no presence.

The result was the Annapolis process, which encouraged the sides to come up with final status solutions as a means of enticing Gaza Palestinians to reject the militancy of their Hamas overlords.

"What Annapolis does is, it takes the road map’s phases as the basis for implementation but seeks to define the endgame first," said David Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

Lieberman made it clear that was off the table: Israel was returning to an expectation of a holistic end to violence before it agreed to advance the peace process.

"I will never agree to our waiving all the clauses — I believe there are 48 of them — and going directly to the last clause, negotiations on a permanent settlement," he said. "No. These concessions do not achieve anything. We will adhere to it to the letter, exactly as written. Clauses one, two, three, four — dismantling terrorist organizations, establishing an effective government, making a profound constitutional change in the Palestinian Authority."

The response from the Obama administration was swift and came from its highest reaches — the president himself.

"Let me be clear: The United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," Obama said in an address on Monday to the Turkish parliament. "That is a goal shared by Palestinians, Israelis, and people of goodwill around the world. That is a goal that the parties agreed to in the road map and at Annapolis. That is a goal that I will actively pursue as president of the United States."

Mentioning Annapolis was no coincidence, Makovsky said.

"For the United States, that has worked on this process for the last couple of years, it’s an important dimension," he said. "Obama’s speech in Turkey was a bid to define where the United States stands."

There were signs that the issue was not about to disappear. Netanyahu issued a statement subsequent to Obama’s speech that did not reference the speech and that was emphatically vague.

"Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security and to the pursuit of peace," it said. "The Government of Israel is committed to both of these goals and will formulate its policies in the near future so as to work closely with the United States towards achieving these common objectives."

A minister from Netanyahu’s Likud Party sounded a more belligerent tone. "Israel does not take orders from Obama," Gilad Erdan, the environmental affairs minister, told the Jerusalem Post after Obama’s speech. "In voting for Netanyahu, the citizens of Israel have decided that they will not become the U.S.’s 51st state."

Obama has been careful to emphasize that he will take into account Israeli concerns. During his campaign, he enjoyed reminding reporters that he likes making difficult points to constituencies that may not be happy to hear what he has to say. That was evident Tuesday when he told a roundtable of Turkish university students pressing him on the close U.S.-Israel alliance that he rejected those who would reflexively dismiss Israel’s concerns.

"In the Muslim world, this notion that somehow everything is the fault of the Israelis lacks balance — because there’s two sides to every question," Obama said. "That doesn’t mean that sometimes one side has done something wrong and should not be condemned. But it does mean there’s always two sides to an issue. I say the same thing to my Jewish friends, which is you have to see the perspective of the Palestinians."

It’s not clear yet how mainstream pro-Israel groups and their friends in Congress would line up should a fissure emerge. One shot across the bow came in the form of a letter Monday from U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), published in the Washington Post.

"For a two-state solution to become a reality, Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip must recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state," Engel said. "They must also renounce terrorism and understand that they cannot use terrorism as a negotiating tool to achieve their state. The Palestinians must also agree to abide by all previous agreements signed by their leadership."

He concluded with an allusion to pressures on Israel to come up with a final status document: "Peace will come to that region of the world when both sides recognize each other’s right to exist in peace and security. It will not come from pressuring Israel to make unilateral concessions in return for worthless promises or worthless pieces of paper."

Dovish pro-Israel groups, including J Street and the Israel Policy Forum, were already lining up behind the White House.

The Israel Policy Forum sent a letter on Monday to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state, and Daniel Shapiro, the chief Israel-Palestinian officer at the National Security Council, asking them to urge Netanyahu to abjure settlement expansion and the Palestinians to prevent violence and stop incitement.  The letter comes amid reports that Netanyahu struck a secret deal with Lieberman to build a settlement in "E1," a plot of land that bridges Jerusalem and the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement — and that Palestinians say will strangle a north-south corridor that is critical to a viable state.

On Iran, for the time being, the sides are on the same page. Netanyahu, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine just prior to assuming government, embraced Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran as a means — joined with tough sanctions — of getting the Islamic Republic to stand down from building a nuclear bomb.

"How you achieve this goal is less important than achieving it," Netanyahu told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. "I think the Iranian economy is very weak, which makes Iran susceptible to sanctions that can be ratcheted up by a variety of means."

The Israelis and the Americans have acknowledged differences over when Iran crosses a red line. Israel says it is when Iran achieves the capability to manufacture highly enriched uranium, which may be as soon as the fall; Americans have set as the danger point Iran’s capability of  delivering a nuclear device, which U.S. officials have projected might not happen until 2015. Iran is believed to already have the capacity to manufacture enough low-enriched uranium for one bomb.

Makovsky said the time to watch for how U.S. and Israeli polices interact will be toward the fall; should Israel charge that Iran is, by that time, manufacturing highly enriched uranium, it might expect the United States to walk away from any diplomatic outreach it has extended to Iran. "Because Israel is the one that’s threatened existentially, Israel has an earlier red line," he said. "I’m not saying the United States will resist getting up from the table — but Israel will want tthe United States to leave the table if there’s no breakthrough."

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