Round 2: Obama vs. Netanyahu


President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu are fated to enter Round 2 of their diplomatic slugfest next week,

with Obama’s inauguration Monday and Netanyahu’s virtually assured re-election Tuesday.

Round 1, the last four years, was a draw. Obama led almost immediately with an insistence on a settlement freeze in his effort to come up with a quick solution to the Mideast stalemate, but he had to pull back when the Palestinian Authority failed to respond during the 10-month freeze. Netanyahu scored points in Congress with his stirring speeches there, but he knows Israelis want their leader to be able to get along with the president of the U.S., their most important source of support.

What are the prospects for improvement in what Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator, calls the most “dysfunctional” relationship between leaders that he’s seen in four decades of involvement?

Judging from the way the two adversarial allies have lined up of late, the situation could deteriorate further, which would be a blow to both Washington and Jerusalem. Obama has chosen three men for key cabinet posts — Chuck Hagel for Defense, John Kerry for State, and John Brennan for the CIA — who are viewed with varying degrees of concern by mainstream pro-Israel supporters. And Netanyahu appears to be moving further rightward, joining political forces with Avigdor Lieberman, an outspoken critic of compromise, in the election campaign, and heading a Likud Party that has replaced moderates with several extremist hawks in its slate.

It will be interesting to see if Netanyahu, in putting together his next coalition, seeks partners who value improving relations with the U.S. or those who prefer defiance in advocating for expanded settlements.

Unlike four years ago, when Obama came into office confident that he could address and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no such expectation today, and other Mideast dramas have taken priority for the U.S., with the focus on Syria, Egypt and Iran.

An incisive analysis of the situation by David Makovsky and David Pollock of the Washington Institute is not optimistic about peace talks anytime soon, but calls for a “relentless” diplomatic effort on the part of the U.S. to prevent further damage and keep the door open for peace talks at a later date. The focus should be on “bottom-up” projects of cooperation rather than a grand, top-down, imposed settlement, the authors say. They also encourage the U.S. to press for verbal commitments from both Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas confirming their commitment to a two-state solution.

In addition, the authors suggest that if Abbas can’t bring himself to speak positively of Israel as a “Jewish state,” he should use the phrase “democratic state for the Jewish people.” And Netanyahu should make clear that the additional housing for settlers he calls for would be confined to “the small areas likely to be swapped for other territory ceded to the Palestinians.”

Baby steps, no doubt. But that’s the reality when hopes of a meaningful resolution seem so remote.

The greatest chance for cooperation, and perhaps compromises on the peace front, centers on Jerusalem and Washington agreeing on an approach to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Israel greatly prefers the U.S. taking the lead, especially if that includes a military response. So Netanyahu might be willing to go out of his comfort zone in dealing with the Palestinians if the reward were heightened American involvement in dealing with Iran.

In the meantime, Netanyahu and Obama will probably meet next in Washington in early March when the Israeli leader is set to address the annual AIPAC convention. Let’s hope they have enough reasons to get along more cooperatively than in past meetings, allowing the fear of a nuclear Iran to trump any residual personal bad feelings they have for each other.