First of all, a tip of my Ameinu hat to the many of you who signed our petition calling on Prime Minister Netanyahu to declare his support for a two state solution. The petition and signatures were sent to the prime minister and, as you will read below, I believe we are getting close.
Pens and keyboards were poised as Bibi and Obama met in the Oval Office on Monday. Everyone, including yours truly, waited to hear what was said and then analyze the results. I also had the opportunity to meet with Bibi yesterday as part of a Jewish leadership delegation and we had an extensive question and answer session with him.
The public results of the White House meeting are well documented. Bibi feels that by Obama setting a time frame for diplomatic efforts with Iran, Israel and the U.S. can build a joint strategy in confronting Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. He stated clearly that he believes Obama really understands Israel’s security concerns. Obama spoke about a regional approach to peace efforts and believes the opportunity exists to engage with other Arab countries as part of the peace process. This brings us to the third issue, the three words that Bibi just can’t quite bring himself to say – two state solution.
This week he said publicly that he believes in “Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace and prosperity.” In response to my question about why he wouldn’t call that a two state solution, he remarked that if through negotiations the “substance” can be worked out, the “semantics will sort itself out.” I pressed him on this issue and he said that there is “agreement across the Israeli political spectrum that no one wants to rule the Palestinians. “ He continued, saying that the substance that needs to get settled can be divided into two issues: territorial and what kind of entity will be created. For example, Bibi believes that a Palestinian entity must not have “certain sovereign powers,” for example an army or control over airspace so close to Tel Aviv. This is an example of the question of semantics that he has been referring to; can you call it a state if it lacks these “powers?”
On the topic of territory and settlements, he referred to the sacrifice of the Gaza withdrawal (which he opposed) and the lack of progress towards peace as a result of dismantling settlements. When asked to expand upon the settlement question, he said that they were studying the understandings reached by the Bush and Olmert governments. This is clearly a point of disagreement between the sides and my understanding from U.S. sources is that both the President and special emissary George Mitchell believe that Israeli gestures in this area are absolutely essential for progress towards peace to be made. We know this topic was covered in the one-on-one part of the White House meeting, but we don’t know what was said.
Netanyahu understands the advantages of a regional approach and went as far as to say that the Arab Peace Initiative had “positive elements.” He added that he would like to see Arab countries take “specific steps” in regard to Israel as part of Obama’s regional plan.
One must take into account Bibi’s domestic political concerns as well. He has a sizeable group of Likud ministers and Knesset members that are not two staters. He has no reason to create an internal party confrontation until he is forced by circumstances to do so. He probably thinks that avoiding a Likud party crisis is a good enough of reason to talk about an “entity” rather than a “state” for now. The question is how long all parties concerned will be understanding about his personal political bind.
These are early days in terms of the relations between the new administrations, but here is my take-away:
Obama knows that he and Bibi are not entirely on the same page, but at this stage he wants to lead, not push. The Israelis and Americans are setting up teams to work together on the major issues of Iran, regional peace initiative and Palestinian peace process. That will give the Americans more time to nudge the Israelis on the policy issues and give Bibi time to process these issues through his party and government. Meanwhile, Obama is giving a major address aimed at the Muslim world in Egypt on June 4 and will most likely share his vision of a peaceful Middle East. We all know it will include a Palestinian state and, behind the scenes, there will be discussions around what gestures all the sides can make to nurse the process along.
Bibi must know that the endgame with the Palestinians is a state, even if it is of the demilitarized variety. He also knows what has been discussed and agreed upon between the sides in the past. Most importantly, he is aware that Obama has enormous international political capital right now; he told us so. If Obama decides to truly invest it in the chronic challenge known as “Peace in the Middle East,” it will be very attractive to pursue what the King Abdullah II of Jordan has been calling the “57 state solution,” meaning diplomatic relations for Israel with all Muslim and Arab countries. As should be clear by now, Bibi is less an ideologue and more a pragmatist, or even an opportunist. If Obama really succeeds in getting moderate Arab countries engaged in the process, an opportunity may be presented that Bibi won’t be able to resist. I, for one, hope he is up to the task. If not, Israel may be in for a rough ride and democratic “regime change.”