President Barack Obama’s meeting today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House marks the first steps by the U.S. leader to insert himself more directly into Middle East peace talks as another deadline approaches.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has hit resistance in his effort to settle, by the end of April, on a structure for negotiating a peace agreement that has eluded Israelis, Palestinians and successive U.S. administrations for decades.
Obama said in a Feb. 27 interview with Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg that time is running out to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. He urged Netanyahu to “seize the moment” to make peace.
If Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do forIsrael, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach,” he said. “It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”
Obama said it’s his “hope and expectation” that Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will reach beyond their differences. Obama has invited Abbas for a March 17 meeting at the White House. A week later, Obama is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, which has leverage over the Palestinians.
Netanyahu, who speaks tomorrow to the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said in response to Obama’s statements that “I won’t give in to pressure.”
“I want a deal. It has to be a good deal,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 television. “It takes three to tango,” he said, referring to Israel, the U.S. and the Palestinians.
For Obama, deeper involvement in the talks comes at “probably as good a time as any,” said Dennis Ross, a former Mideast negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. “The fact is, you have an end-of-April clock ticking on the negotiations.
‘‘It’s a way of demonstrating there’s an investment here — it is something that’s important to the president,” Ross, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, said. “Obviously, when you’re meeting with the president, the stakes go up.”
For Israel, the more pressing concern is Iran’s nuclear program, and that will be the other topic dominating their discussion.
Netanyahu outlined his objectives for the Obama visit at a meeting last month with lawmakers from his Likud party. “First of all is Iran,” the prime minister said in a Feb. 10 broadcast statement.
As for the peace talks, the prime minister said he will reject the “right of return” to Israeli land for Palestinian refugees and insist that Palestinians recognize the state of Israel as “the national homeland” of the Jewish people, a step Abbas has rejected.
A senior Palestinian official said gaps in negotiations with Israel have widened in the latest round of peace talks set to conclude at the end of April.
“It isn’t narrowing,” Mohammad Shtayyeh, who negotiated on behalf of Abbas until November, said Feb. 27 at his office in Ramallah. The offer made by Netanyahu’s team to cede land in the West Bank for a Palestinian state, he said, is less than half the area previous Israeli governments have proposed. Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev declined to respond to Shtayyeh’s assertion.
Obama’s decision to engage in the peace process a year after he delegated the work to Kerry suggests both that Kerry got further than the White House initially predicted in restarting peace talks and that the top U.S. diplomat has run into enough obstacles that his April deadline may be in trouble.
“This framework is more than a speed bump, it is a critical piece,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington. “Why not strategically deploy the president?”
At the same time, sustained engagement by Obama would be premature, Miller said. “What this is not is a prelude to Barack Obama’s immersion in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The true heavy lifting isn’t now.”
Netanyahu emphasizes Iran in part because he sees the Palestinian conflict as less pressing, saidZalman Shoval, an adviser to the prime minister and Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S.
“It’s not something that unless we reach an agreement by such and such a date, everything is going to blow up,” Shoval said in a telephone interview. “We’ve been dealing with this for 100 years and if it doesn’t happen now, we’ll keep working on it.”
The U.S. and five other world powers have a six-month agreement with Iran, to end in July, during which the Islamic Republic is supposed to freeze some of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from some sanctions.
Israel has expressed skepticism about the negotiations, and warned against the U.S. getting played by the Iranians. Netanyahu may have limited ability to enlist the U.S. Congress in keeping pressure on Iran.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has blocked efforts by some lawmakers to bring new sanctions legislation up for consideration, and Obama has said he would veto any such measure should it get through Congress.
Ahead of the policy conference at AIPAC, the biggest pro-Israel lobbying group, Senate Republicans on Feb. 26 announced a new effort to try to force votes on new sanctions legislation by attaching language to popular legislation for veterans’ benefits. While AIPAC earlier called for new sanctions, it has backed away from that position.
Ross said even with the sixth-month agreement in place with Iran and congressional votes on hold, Obama and Netanyahu are sure to discuss Iran at length because the issue is “profoundly important” for Israel.
“If the Israelis are going to accept a diplomatic outcome, the have to see that the results remove this Sword of Damocles they see hanging over their head,” Ross said. “This will certainly be a substantive discussion.”
Today’s meeting won’t have the same heightened level of tension as that was the prelude to their last two March encounters.
When Netanyahu came to Washington in March 2012, he and Obama each were seeking re-election. Their mutual distrust and differences about how to manage Iran’s nuclear threat and peace negotiations with Palestinians were aired openly.
That colored the leadup to their meetings in Jerusalem last March. Obama and Netanyahu both sought to erase the sense of friction, operating under a strategy that a show of unity would serve each man domestically and in facing Iran. They courted one another aggressively in public appearances, and Obama visited the Dead Sea Scrolls and the grave of the founder of modern Zionism.
“This is Bibi-Obama 3.0,” Miller said of the latest visit. “They’ve found a way to kind of be alone together in their relationship.”
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