Expected clash puts Obama Mideast policy shift to the test

A Palestinian man holds A Palestinian flag during a protest. (File photo)
A Palestinian man holds A Palestinian flag during a protest. (File photo)


President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are set to clash Friday in a meeting that could boost US credibility barely 24 hours after the president delivered a major speech laying out US policy toward a Middle East and North Africa in the throes of political and economic change.

The litmus test for the credibility of Mr. Obama’s embracing of popular demands for an end to autocratic rule in the region is likely to be the degree to which he is willing and able to stand his ground in breaking with key aspects of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians.

Mr. Obama’s speech revived the lack of trust between him and Mr. Netanyahu by making him the first US president to acknowledge the need to define the boundaries of a future Palestinian state along the borders prior to the 1967 Middle East War in which Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan.
Mr. Obama drove his point home by also breaking with Israeli insistence that all core issues—borders, Jerusalem and refugees—be discussed in peace talks simultaneously. Instead, the president said in line with Palestinian demands that negotiations should first focus on the delineation of the border between Israel and Palestine as well as on security and only subsequently address other issues.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama are also unlikely to see eye to eye on the president’s call for a “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces.” Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that Israel keep troops along the Jordan River even after Palestinians establish their state.

Mr. Netanyahu was quick to reject Mr. Obama’s reference to the 1967 borders, which he sees as a dangerous and major US shift of US Middle East policy.

The Israeli prime minister demanded that the United States abide by earlier understandings with Israel. He said that he expected Mr. Obama to uphold a commitment made by former President George W. Bush in a letter in 2004 that “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.

The stakes in the looming battle between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu go beyond the modalities of negotiations for peace. The outcome of the battle could constitute a watershed in the balance of power in US-Israeli relations, boost US credibility in the Arab and Muslim world, and make it more difficult for authoritarian Arab leaders to simply ignore US calls for political and economic reform in the region.

Arab and Palestinian expectations are muted given Mr. Obama’s poor record on standing up to Israel. High Palestinians and Arab hopes when Mr. Obama came to office in 2008 that he would adopt a more equitable approach toward Israeli-Palestinian peace were dashed when the president failed to persuade Israel to halt the establishment of Israeli settlements in occupied territory and then went as far as vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the outposts. Mr. Netanyahu, by effectively handing Mr. Obama his first major foreign policy defeat, appeared to have gained the upper hand in relations with Mr. Obama.

US officials say Mr. Obama appears this time round determined to take a firmer stand on the need for Israel to make substantial concessions to achieve peace. The officials say the president referred to the 1967 borders despite his belief that Mr. Netanyahu has no intention of making such concessions. Mr. Obama, The New York Times reported, maintained the reference despite a furious phone call hours before he delivered the speech from Mr. Netanyahu to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanding that it be deleted.

As a result, Israeli officials fear that Friday’s meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu could produce a watershed rupture in relations between Israel and its closest ally, the United States.

US officials hope that Israel’s reliance on the US to veto an expected proposal in the United Nations Security Council to recognize Palestinian statehood and stop Europe from voting in favor in the UN General Assembly in September may give it some leverage to nudge Mr. Netanyahu in the direction of a peace agreement based on the 1967 borders.

The officials note that continued Israeli refusal to entertain a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians based on the boundaries will make it difficult for the US to argue that recognition of statehood will not further the peace process. Palestinians have long demanded that Israel recognize the 1967 borders as the basis for peace negotiations and halt all settlement activity as preconditions for a revival of peace talks.

Mr. Obama threw a further bone to Mr. Netanyahu by making no reference to the future of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. In doing so the president left open the possibility of land swaps along the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank that would allow Israel to retain some of its settlements within the borders of the Jewish state.

Mr. Obama’s bones are unlikely to persuade Mr. Netanyahu to moderate his position. With the United States gearing up for elections in 18 months and Republicans enjoying a majority in the House of Representatives, Mr. Netanyahu is likely to fight Mr. Obama’s policy change tooth and nail. It is would be a fight that would put Mr. Obama’s mettle to the test.

Remarks by Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu after their meeting on Friday as well as speeches by Mr. Obama to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, on Sunday and by Mr. Netanyahu to Congress on Tuesday are certain to indicate to what degree both men are determined to stick to their guns and what it might take to bridge what is at this moment threatens to be a widening gap between them.


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