Obama expected to press Netanyahu on Palestinian state

In his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House today, President Obama was expected to press the right-wing Israeli leader to endorse a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and to come out in favor of negotiations to achieve that goal, and steps to help negotiations advance.

Obama was also expected to press Netanyahu to support a new regional initiative aimed at a comprehensive peace settlement.

Netanyahu has rejected moving toward a Palestinian state, breaking with previous Israeli government policy as well as numerous United Nations resolutions. Instead, he has called for bolstering the Palestinian economy, all the while keeping the Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Obama appears to be moving strongly on a regional approach to achieve a two-state solution, and in his meeting with Netanyahu he undoubtedly underscored his intention to pursue that course. Obama already met with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington last month. On May 26 he will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House, and then on May 28 with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

On June 4, Obama will arrive in Cairo where he will deliver a much-heralded speech addressed to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, the Arab League and key Arab governments have been formulating a new proposal based on the 2002 Arab peace initiative. King Abdullah of Jordan discussed this with Obama at the White House last month and both Mubarak and Abbas are expected to continue that discussion during their upcoming Washington visits. Obama is expected to reflect this new Arab initiative in his Cairo speech in June.

The 2002 Arab peace initiative proposed that in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967, the Arab countries would recognize Israel and normalize relations with it. The new proposal, according to some reports, would speed up recognition of Israel by the Arab countries.

The initiatives Obama has already taken on the Israel-Palestinian conflict appear to be contributing to a unifying trend among leaders of Arab countries, Al-Ahram reports.

“According to one Arab diplomat based in Cairo,” the Egyptian newspaper reports, “Obama`s enthusiasm has served to narrow inter-Arab differences, especially on the extremist government of Netanyahu. The previously standard divide between Arab capitals that advocate confrontation and those who promote ‘engagement’ with Tel Aviv is waning with both sides eager to see what Obama has to offer. Egyptian and Syrian diplomats, who usually take contrasting positions when it comes to the U.S. and Israel, are now talking the same language.”

A senior Arab League official told Al-Ahram, “We think that Obama wants to make history. He really does. And he knows that by a relatively fair approach towards Arabs and Israelis he has a chance to make history in the Middle East. Arab states, and in fact the Arab League, are willing to meet Obama halfway and to help him make history for himself and for the region.”

At the White House, Netanyahu was expected to focus on harsher action toward Iran, arguing that it represents an immediate threat to Israel’s survival.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel wants the U.S. to put a strict time limit on any talks with Iran, and to impose tough sanctions if an agreement is not reached by that date. Other Israeli hawks speak of directly attacking Iran, with or without U.S. backing.

The Obama administration has rejected such an approach, calling it counterproductive. It argues that a regional approach and settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself will help defuse tensions with Iran.

Several Jewish American groups are mobilizing to back Obama’s peace initiatives.

The Israel Policy Forum ran a full-page ad in The New York Times last week headlined “Yes You Can, Mr. President, Achieve a Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

J Street, the increasingly influential lobbying group for the “pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) are urging support for a bipartisan letter introduced by Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Charles Boustany (R-La.) and Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.). The letter backs the president’s commitment to strong U.S. leadership in pursuing a negotiated two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as a comprehensive regional peace for the entire region.

“Peace between Israel and all its neighbors is a paramount interest of the United States, Israel, and the Arab world,” the letter says.

Also urging support for the Cohen-Boustany-Carnahan letter is Churches for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 22 public policy offices of national churches and agencies — Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant.

On May 11, the 15-member United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a statement endorsing the two-state solution. The statement read, in part, that 'the Council reiterates its call for renewed and urgent efforts by the parties and the international community to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, based on the vision of a region where two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, will live side by side in peace, within secure and recognized borders.'

suewebb @ pww.org