Can Bibi and Obama make it work?

President Obama speaks by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the Oval Office on June 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama speaks by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the Oval Office on June 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

NEWS ANALYSIS

NEW YORK (JTA) — Did you hear the latest? Bibi called Monday and said that next week he had some important things he wanted to get off his chest. Is he ready to commit or just being a tease? Will Obama show enough flexibility to make this thing work?

Those rushing to declare the fix-up between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a flop after just one date should remember that a good relationship takes time. It’s been less than five months since Obama’s inauguration, and Netanyahu has been on the job for only two months.

Compare that to George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. Nowadays everyone talks about their wonderful marriage, but their respective first terms in office had already overlapped for seven months when they had their first major blowup. In reality, it took several years — and several spats — before they found their groove.

In the early months, both before and after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there were reports that the Bush administration was preparing to apply some pressure on Israel as part of a wider effort to short-circuit the second intifada and kick-start the stalled peace process. Sharon didn’t like what he was hearing and declared in a public speech: “Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense. This is unacceptable to us. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism.”

The outburst — widely interpreted as Sharon warning Bush that he was in danger of turning into a Neville Chamberlain-style appeaser — drew a stern rebuke from the White House. Only after several high-level phone calls, a public apology and heaps of praise did Sharon succeed in smoothing Bush’s ruffled feathers. And even then it took several years for their governments to hammer out a joint approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bush eventually granted Israel wide latitude to fight terrorism and signed on to Sharon’s view that Yasser Arafat needed to be sidelined. Sharon signed on to the internationally backed “road map” peace plan, delivered on the clause calling for Israel to endorse the goal of a Palestinian state and accepted Bush’s calculation that Mahmoud Abbas, who went on to lead the Palestinian Authority, was kosher.

Over time, Sharon and Bush even worked out an approach to the thorny issue of settlements: Israel dismantled all of its settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank; Bush responded to Sharon’s disengagement plan by issuing a public letter acknowledging that Israel would end up with some of the territory it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War; and Bush offered a behind-the-scenes green light to limited Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, despite the road map’s call for a full settlement freeze, including "natural growth."

Now Netanyahu and Obama are seeing how far each can go in adjusting the terms without jettisoning the entire road map framework or creating a deep frost between Washington and Jerusalem.

The Israelis made the first adjustment, with Netanyahu refusing to affirm Sharon’s endorsement of a Palestinian state, even though one of Israel’s first obligations under the road map is to issue an “unequivocal statement affirming [Israel's] commitment to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel.”

Next, Obama and his team made their adjustment, insisting through a series of escalating statements that not only does the administration stand by the goal of creating a Palestinian state, it also wants a full Israeli settlement freeze.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the firm public message last month that there was no wink-wink in the president’s position.

“He wants to see a stop to settlements," she said. "Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.”

Then, twice in recent days, Clinton delivered the official Obama rejection of Israeli claims on Bush-era understandings about allowing natural growth in some settlements.

“There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements,” she said last week. “If they did occur, which of course, people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government. And there are contrary documents that suggest that they were not to be viewed as in any way contradicting the obligations that Israel undertook pursuant to the road map. And those obligations are very clear.”

Clinton struck the same note in an interview that aired over the weekend on ABC’s "This Week."

Obama, meanwhile, has played the good cop in several media interviews, stressing that the Palestinians also have obligations they need to meet — including fighting terrorism and stopping anti-Israel incitement — and stressing that Israel would continue to enjoy a “special” relationship with the United States. The president repeatedly has brushed aside questions about sanctioning Israel over the settlement issue, insisting that diplomacy takes time.

Obama’s Middle East envoy, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, sought to articulate both halves of the tough love message in meetings Tuesday with Israeli officials. He told President Shimon Peres that the U.S. commitment to the security of Israel “remains unshakeable," and insisted that "my meetings today with the president and other Israeli officials are discussions among friends who share a common set of objectives: peace, security and prosperity to all the people of this region.”

But there was no public backpedaling from what Obama has framed as a commitment to telling both sides publicly what he thinks needs to be done.

"The president and the secretary of state have made our policy clear: Israelis and Palestinians have a responsibility to meet their obligations under the road map," Mitchell said.

Against this backdrop, Netanyahu has decided to deliver a "major diplomatic speech" next week to outline his government’s "principles for achieving peace and security."

"I would like to make it clear: We want to achieve peace with the Palestinians and with the countries of the Arab world while attempting to reach maximum understanding with the U.S. and our friends around the world,” the prime minister said Sunday at the beginning of his weekly Cabinet meeting.  “My aspiration is to achieve a stable peace that rests on a solid foundation of security for the State of Israel and its citizens."

It will be the most important speech of his second stint as prime minister and the defining moment in his relationship with the popular U.S. president.

That is, until the next one.

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