When Bibi Met Barack: A Tougher Line on Middle East Peace

When Bibi Met Barack: A Tougher Line on Middle East Peace

It was an odd choice for a gift. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the White House carrying a book for President Barack Obama, an edition of the American humorist Mark Twain’s travels to the Holy Land. Twain didn’t like the place much; he wrote rudely about the Arabs and thought the Jews should not have their own nation. Was it a warning from Netanyahu, and if so, what was he saying? Not many laughs in the Middle East? It’s not the place you think it is? Stay away?

Whatever the intent, Obama seemed unfazed. In a press conference after the two leaders had met privately for about 90 minutes, the President emphasized that Israel must start taking the peace process seriously by putting a halt to the construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, lifting the blockade on Gaza and accepting the idea of a Palestinian state next door. Obama’s no-nonsense words were a far cry from the easy ride that Israeli Premiers got from the Bush Administration. As columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Israeli daily Ma’ariv, “There wasn’t a single blister that Obama didn’t step on, and it didn’t seem to bother him.”

Israeli journalists who attended the press briefing described the two men as “grim and formal,” as if they had both come away from the session with a newfound wariness of each other, like circling prizefighters. Obama wants to rally Arab nations to create a bloc against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and he thinks that the only way to bring the Arabs on board is to achieve headway on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu wants Iran defanged, but the hawkish Premier doesn’t see the linkup or why he needs to make concessions to the Palestinians, especially ones that might jeopardize Israel’s security.

To Washington’s irritation, Netanyahu continues to play coy on voicing approval for a two-state solution, an agreement that Israel signed on to before Netanyahu was elected Premier that is the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region. Netanyahu objects, partly because of his own convictions and partly because his right-wing coalition partners oppose a Palestinian state. At the White House, Netanyahu did his usual tiptoe around the words “two-state solution,” repeating his earlier mantra: “We don’t want to govern the Palestinians. We want them to govern themselves.”

On Iran, Netanyahu came away with an assurance from Obama that he would give Tehran until the end of this year to put the brakes on its nuclear-weapons program. If Tehran refuses to budge, the U.S. says it will push for sanctions. If those fail, Washington is keeping open the option of a military strike. Security sources tell TIME that soon after taking office, Obama urged the Pentagon to come up with a military plan to take out Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, just in case. No doubt this pleases the Israeli Premier. As Israeli newspaper columnist Nahum Barnea wrote recently, “For Netanyahu, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is everything.”

But in exchange for a tough U.S. line on Iran, will Netanyahu oblige the Obama Administration on the Palestinian issue Netanyahu will no doubt try the tactic used by previous Israeli Premiers, which is to stall, using the plausible excuse that Palestinians lack a coherent leadership. Netanyahu must also be wondering how hard Obama and a pro-Israel Congress will be willing to push its key regional ally. No doubt he will test Obama’s determination.

At the White House press briefing, Obama came across as a man not easily deterred. He has his sights on a regional peace initiative, roping in moderate Arab states, which he will unveil on June 4 in Cairo. Obama knows that his plan will succeed or flop depending on Israel’s willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians. After Netanyahu’s trip, the Israeli public will brace for a tougher approach from Washington. A Haaretz cartoonist showed Obama escorting Netanyahu across the White House lawn and telling him, “You can take the subway to your hotel. Next time you’re around, give me a call.” This sort of casual send-off isn’t what Israeli leaders are accustomed to when visiting the White House.

Read “Israel’s New Leader: Can the U.S. Work with Netanyahu”

See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.