Bibi and Barack — time to talk tachles

NEWS ANALYSIS

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Before the negotiations begin, Israel and the United States have to get the negotiations out of the way.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are meeting in Washington next week, culminating weeks of coded back and forth on Iran and on resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

When they meet, the two leaders and their advisers are likely to break the code and set red lines for each side: Israel on Iran, the United States on Palestinian statehood.

David Makovsky, a senior scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was critical that each side makes clear how far it will go toward meeting the other side’s expectations.

"Each side should say what they cannot do, but they have to identify explicitly where they can say ‘yes we can,’ " he said.

Josh Block, the spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said the sides were set up for a "smooth visit."

"This is the first conversation at the highest levels between two very close allies," he said. "It’s an opportunity for two leaders to build on existing personal rapport and to chart a unified course."

Another pro-Israel insider questioned whether the sides had actually managed to reach that point yet, suggesting the mutual pronouncements on the critical issues were still vague and lacking in the concrete details needed for policy founbation.

"They’ll meet, they’ll give speeches, they’ll talk past each other," the official predicted.

Insiders in both administrations, off the record, credit the other side with making the right noises.

Although the Obama administration has not outlined its Iran policy yet, Israeli officials say they are pleased with the signals coming from the White House. They include Obama’s extension of existing sanctions and backing in the Congress from Obama’s Democratic Party allies for toughened measures, which the president can use as a sword of Damocles should Iran resist his diplomatic outreach.

Even better, from the Israeli point of view, is that the Obama administration has extracted a commitment from Russia to indefinitely suspend its delivery of the S-300 anti-missile system, which would have posed a serious threat to Israel’s capacity to target Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Delivery of the system, according to U.S. and Israeli thinking, would have served as a disincentive for Iran to dismantle its nuclear program.

It helps that Dennis Ross, the Obama administration official shaping the Iran strategy, toured the region recently accompanied by military officials as well as diplomats. That was seen as a tangible sign that the Obama administration is serious when it says that nothing, including the military option, is off the table when it comes to containing Iran’s weapons plans.

Meanwhile, Obama administration officials say Netanyahu has shown seriousness about accommodating Obama’s push for renewed talks with the Palestinians. At last week’s AIPAC conference, the Israeli leader retreated from campaign promises to focus only on Palestinian economic development, saying he placed equal importance on the security and political tracks.

Under Netanyahu, Israeli officials also are tamping down skepticism about U.S.-led efforts to bolster Palestinian security forces.

Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. general who heads the program, last week said he felt the program now had "Israel’s respect," and he was ready to almost double the number of personnel from 1,600 to 3,100. That, he said, would "reduce the IDF footprint in the West Bank." Notably, AIPAC has signed onto U.S. efforts to provide the funds for the program.

And this week, ahead of his Obama summit, Netanyahu is meeting with two regional allies that the United States considers critical in advancing peace with the Palestinians: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II.

"We wish to expand this peace first and foremost with our Palestinian neighbors," Netanyahu said Monday at his meeting with Mubarak in Sharm el Sheik after effusively praising the Egyptian leader. "We want to see Israelis and Palestinians living together with the prospect of peace, security and prosperity."

The problem is that communication between Israel and the United States in symbols — and not through frank exchanges — in the past has created misunderstandings that hamper cooperation. Over the years, Israel’s understanding of a settlement freeze often has been much more flexible than that of the United States — including, at times, annexing territory adjacent to settlements. At times that has fostered bitter feelings between the two capitals.

In recent weeks, there have been similar tensions because of a failure on both sides to make parameters clear. Netanyahu’s government has suggested it is committed to Palestinian statehood by re-committing to the 7-year old "road map" peace process, but has not said so outright. That has led to frequent and emphatic commitments to statehood from Obama officials.

Conversely, the failure by the Obama administration to specify what it will do should diplomatic outreach to Iran fail has sparked a flood of leaks in the Israeli press about Israeli government anxieties over whether Israel might one day need to go it alone in facing Iran. The vacuum has led Israelis to wonder whether routine statements from U.S. officials about wanting every nuclear state to join the non-proliferation treaty mean that the Obama administration is taking aim at Israel’s nuclear program.

Such questions need not be answered in the light of day, but should be addressed, even if Netanyahu and Obama need to clear the room of advisers to do it, said Makovsky, who has just co-authored a book with Ross on past failures in Middle East peacemaking titled "Myths, Illusions and Peace."

"If they don’t know where they’re going, each one may assume the worst of the other," he said. "It requires complete candor on these two questions: What Israel’s intentions are with the Palestinian Authority with a final deal, and what will the United States do if diplomacy with Iran fails."

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