Could Obama-Netanyahu clash produce Mideast peace breakthrough? Maybe

A Palestinian boy with his face painted with the Palestinian flag wears a headband with a key with Arabic that reads 'We shall return'. (File photo)

A Palestinian boy with his face painted with the Palestinian flag wears a headband with a key with Arabic that reads 'We shall return'. (File photo)
US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are locked into an acrimonious dance that could, strangely enough, produce a breakthrough in stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

A careful reading of both men’s exchanges in the wake of Mr. Obama’s broad-ranging Middle East policy speech on Thursday suggests that their positions may be less at odds despite Mr. Netanyahu’s seeming public rejection of the president’s insistence that the boundaries of a future Palestinian state be based on Israel’s borders prior to its conquest of the West Bank in 1967.
Mr. Obama’s speech made him the first US president to define the future Palestinian state’s borders and the first to use the pre-1967 boundaries as his yardstick. By doing so, Mr. Obama gave Palestinians, who insist on an Israeli pullback from occupied territory to its 1967 borders, a significant incentive to reengage in peace efforts.

By doing so, he seemed to be putting the United States on a collision course with Israel. Mr. Netanyahu furiously phoned US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hours before Mr. Obama’s speech on Thursday in a bid to persuade her to get Mr. Obama to drop the reference to the 1967 borders. In a rare rebuke of a US President, Mr. Netanyahu said after talks in Washington on Friday with Mr. Obama that Israel would never accept the US leader’s proposals. Mr. Netanyahu described the 1967 borders as “indefensible.”

Public acrimony may well serve both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama’s purposes. It portrays Mr. Netanyahu, the head of a fragile coalition whose hard-line members reject compromise with the Palestinians, as standing up for Israel’s interests and projects Mr. Obama as an American leader willing to stand up to Israeli intransigence.

“Remember that, before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide. It was half the width of the Washington Beltway, and these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive. So we can’t go back to those indefensible lines, and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan (Valley),” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters, staring at Mr. Obama after their two-hour meeting.

Nonetheless, Mr. Obama’s carefully crafted reference to the pre-1967 borders, despite the bluster, offers the president and Mr. Netanyahu significant wiggle room to narrow their public differences.

Mr. Obama is certain to have made his remarks in a clear assessment that he would be able to find common ground with Mr. Netanyahu. It is unlikely that the president would have deliberately set himself up for a bruising battle and a major foreign policy defeat 18 months before US presidential elections without having calculated the risks and probabilities of success. That is not to say that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama will not posture and engage in further bluster in their attempts to narrow their differences.

As always the devil is in the details, but this time round the details may just offer opportunity. Mr. Obama’s qualification in his speech that the pre-1967 borders would have to be adjusted to some degree to account for Israeli settlements in the West Bank implicitly acknowledges Mr. Netanyahu’s assertion that the original boundaries are indefensible. With other words, land swaps would ensure more defensible borders for Israel without depriving Palestinians of more land than they have already lost throughout the conflict.

Similarly, the concept of land swaps allows Mr. Obama to uphold a 2004 US pledge to Israel as demanded by Mr. Netanyahu in response to the president’s speech that Israel would not be forced to return to its 1967 boundaries.

That pledge was made in a letter by former President George W. Bush to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In the letter, Mr. Bush stated, “It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Israel’s pre-1967 borders are the 1949 armistice lines, drawn up after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama are a long way from declaring that they are in full agreement, but certainly have the building blocks to get from A to B even if that will not be an easy process.

The two leaders, for one, have to establish credibility. Few Palestinians and Arabs believe that either is sincere. Mr. Netanyahu is widely viewed throughout the Middle East as a hardliner who is not interested in genuine peace with the Palestinians. Mr. Obama lost credibility when he failed earlier to force Mr. Netanyahu to permanently halt Israeli settlement activity and then vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the settlements.

Mr. Netanyahu reiterated in Washington his rejection of the reconciliation agreement between Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Al Fatah and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, demanding that the Palestinian leader choose between Hamas and peace. Mr. Netanyahu nonetheless earlier this month reversed his refusal to transfer tax and custom revenues Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Palestinian leaders meanwhile have declared that a future Palestinian unity government would be one of technocrats rather than party representatives.

While Palestinians see Mr. Obama’s reference to the pre-1967 borders as an important step forward, they reject his endorsement of Israel’s demand that a future Palestinian state be demilitarized. Mr. Obama furthermore has implicitly rejected Mr. Netanyahu’s demand that Israeli troops remain based along the Jordan River even after the Palestinian state is established.

Both these issues are likely to be the tough stuff of negotiations as will be demands that Israel recognize the Palestinian right of return and the status of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, agreement in principle of the boundaries of a future Palestinian state with the details of land swaps yet to be worked out would go a long way to kick start peace talks.

Mr. Obama’s strategy to coax Mr. Netanyahu into endorsing a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders has more immediate hurdles to overcome. The coming 72 hours offers both men ample opportunity to posture. The state of affairs is likely to be gleaned not from what they say but from how they say it and what they don’t say in public appearances in the coming days. Mr. Obama is scheduled to give a speech on Sunday to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, while Mr. Netanyahu addresses Congress on Tuesday.

Mr. Obama’s strategy appears to assume that ultimately Mr. Netanyahu will have to face his demons at home. Engaging with Mr. Obama is likely to mean that Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners would walk out on him. He would have to form a new coalition with the opposition Kadima Party headed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The obstacles and differences that Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu need to overcome to move the peace process are formidable but not insurmountable. Mr. Obama has embarked on a risky path that could lead to failure if Mr. Netanyahu refuses to play ball. But with a fair amount of likely horse-trading given that neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Netanyahu want a real rupture in relations, it could just break the stalemate in efforts to achieve Middle East peace and reestablish US credibility in a key part of the world where it is rapidly losing influence.


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