The Bibi-Obama Friction Watch


The smart money (is there such a thing when it comes to American presidents and Israeli prime ministers?) says, No friction.

The atmospherics (the Israeli prime minister won’t utter the words “two-state solution” and his foreign minister wants to ignore prior accords, while the American president wants an end to settlement building) say, Friction galore.

The spinners (the left hopes the American president will squeeze Israel, the right says the American president will sell Israel down the river) say, Friction is inevitable.

Will sparks fly when President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold their inaugural meeting at the White House next week? Will differences over Iran prove irreconcilable and skirmishes over settlements and a two-state solution with the Palestinians scuttle the new relationship AHA before it gets started?

Handicapping the critical first meeting is the favorite parlor game in Washington this week amid reports that the Obama administration is drafting a comprehensive peace plan that will include Syria and Lebanon as well as the Palestinians.

Uncertainty over how the two leaders will get along has been exacerbated by hyperactive pre-summit spin.

“There are people on the left who hope Obama will bash Israel,” said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Israel. “There are also people who have negative stereotypes of Netanyahu. There are people on the right who hate Obama and want to mobilize Israel supporters against him while sincerely believing he can’t do anything good.”

The result, he said, is a pre-conference atmosphere that gives the appearance that a sharp confrontation is virtually inevitable.

But top analysts are predicting that at least at their first meeting, the two leaders will do everything possible to avoid a spat, especially a public one.

“This meeting is far more important for Mr. Netanyahu than for Mr. Obama; Mr. Netanyahu has a lot more at stake,” said Elliot Abrams, former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Meetings with foreign leaders are an almost daily occurrence in Washington, he wrote, but “for an Israeli prime minister, those relations are a matter of survival — political survival because his opponents at home will quickly jump on any perceived gap with Washington, and physical survival because Iran’s nuclear program tops Mr. Netanyahu’s agenda. Mr. Netanyahu has to care about forging a personal relationship with Mr. Obama, but Mr. Obama may feel he doesn’t need Mr. Netanyahu as a pal.”

According to David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and co-author of the forthcoming book “Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East,” both Obama and Netanyahu “have a very strong interest that their first meeting be seen, at least outwardly, as going well.”

So strong is the desire by both leaders to create the impression of a positive encounter that “we may not know if it doesn’t go well,” Makovsky said because both will portray the meeting as a positive one no matter what happens behind closed doors.

“The prime minister regards the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership as essential,” said Martin Raffel, assistant director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “At their first meeting and in subsequent encounters, he will do everything to ensure that Israel and the United States are operating on the basis of close partnership.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be “disagreements on some of the challenges the two countries face,” Raffel said, “but they will pay a lot of attention to shoring up the fundamentals of the relationship.”

Those disagreements are likely to include differing approaches to the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that the Obama administration insists is a necessary precursor to its other regional priorities, including dealing with the nuclear threat from Iran and the persistent issue of Israeli settlements.

“Bibi will desperately try to persuade Obama that he is willing to go very far on the Palestinian issue but will not be willing to risk a breakdown in his government by freezing what he describes as natural settlement growth within the major settlement blocs which would clearly remain with Israel,” said Isi Liebler, an Israeli analyst and activist.

This week Jordan’s King Abdullah offered the strongest clues yet that the administration is in the final stages of preparing a comprehensive peace plan that incorporates elements from previous plans — including the international road map, the centerpiece of Bush administration policy and the Arab peace initiative.

The king hinted the plan will seek to motivate Israel to move forward on the Palestinian track by offering specific concessions from Arab and Muslim countries, including recognition, visas for Israeli travelers and flyover rights for El Al.

There is growing speculation that some elements of the plan will be revealed, at least in outline form, after a series of top-level meetings that include Netanyahu’s White House visit on Monday, a visit by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 26 and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas two days after that.

Most analysts expect Netanyahu to be much more forthcoming in private on the issue of a two-state solution with the Palestinians than he has been in his public statements.

“Netanyahu will clearly say that what he does on the Palestinian issue will be predicated on how the Iran issue is dealt with,” said the Washington Institute’s Makovsky. “But he will also say: ‘I’m not the Netanyahu of the 1990s, I understand we have to be more far reaching in our approach.’ He will say he is committed to the two-state solution, but ask the president not to push him to say it in public.” Netanyahu, he said, effectively laid the groundwork for the meeting by having President Shimon Peres meet with Obama first and “by saying anything we do in terms of Palestinian economic development is not a substitute for the political track. He’s trying to signal in advance of the meeting that he’s not being recalcitrant.”

Obama, sources here say, will make it clear he expects rapid progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front even as his administration tries to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat and that he expects both sides to quickly begin reciprocal confidence-building measures.

Makovsky said the goal will be to make it very clear to Israel that if it makes concessions such as serious action to limit settlements, it will get something tangible in return, the kind of reciprocity that has been absent from previous peace efforts.

“This administration has internalized Israel’s critique that the peace process can’t be a kind of salami, with Israel giving away bits and pieces and the Arabs states and the Palestinians doing all the taking,” he said.

Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation, said Netanyahu has “done a good job of lowering expectations, to the extent that now the bar for what will be considered a successful meeting is very low on his side.”

Netanyahu, he said, will be “as forthcoming as he needs to be. The way for him to avoid things coming down the pipeline that he doesn’t want is to give something of his own.”

At the very least, Levy said, Netanyahu “won’t articulate opposition to a Palestinian state, and he might find a formula for saying he supports it. He will say he will not try to get out of political negotiations, that he’s keen to move ahead with them as soon as possible.”

At the same time, Levy said the Israeli leader will argue that “he does not believe the environment now is conducive to dealing with the big issues, but that he intends to do everything to create that conducive environment. He’ll tell Obama that ‘you’ll see more progress on the ground in six months than you saw in the previous three years. We already have an economic community working on improving conditions in the territories; we are being very forthcoming in expanding the areas where Palestinian security forces can deploy.’”

Will Obama, who has been repeating his emphasis on the importance of a two-state solution, buy what Bibi’s selling?

“Well, I don’t think he’ll punch [Netanyahu] in the face,” Levy said.

Levy said he believes the overall administration proposal is still being crafted and is likely to be outlined, at least in part, during the visits of the three regional leaders and during Obama’s trip to the region in early June, which will include his long-anticipated speech targeting the Muslim world, scheduled for June 4 in Egypt.

While there is widespread agreement that the new Israel and American leaders will work hard to avoid clashes, especially public ones, next week, all bets may be off if Netanyahu doesn’t turn conciliatory words into concrete actions, said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs.

“They will be monitoring what Netanyahu does very closely,” she said. “It has to be tangible and quick. President Obama likes to see results; if he does, he will continue to engage. But if months go by and the illegal settlements are not removed, if there are no improvements in living conditions in the West Bank, there will be problems.”

Long term, she said, a bigger crunch could come over the issue of Iran as Washington moves toward engagement and the Israeli government argues that time is rapidly running out to stop Tehran’s nuclear program.