Obama & Netanyahu agree and disagree

By Susan Webb

In a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after their White House meeting, President Obama reiterated his view that it is “in the interest not only of the Palestinians, but also the Israelis and the United States and the international community to achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security.”

‘We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the prime minister that he has an historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure,’ Obama said.

Netanyahu has rejected the two-state solution, and did not use the term in the news conference. Instead he used more general language at the news conference, saying, “We don’t want to govern the Palestinians … We want them to govern themselves.”

He said he wants to restart negotiations with the Palestinians “immediately.” But he insisted that, “if we resume negotiations, as we plan to do, then I think that the Palestinians will have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” That is a sore point that can be an obstacle to moving ahead. The Palestinian Authority has already recognized the state of Israel, but declines to define it as a Jewish state, saying it is up to the citizens of Israel to define the nature of their state.

Netanyahu also re-emphasized his focus on Iran, arguing it is an immediate threat to Israel’s survival.

His government has been pressing the Obama administration put a time limit on talks with Iran, and to impose tough sanctions if an agreement is not reached by that date. Some Israeli hawks speak of directly attacking Iran, with or without U.S. backing.

Obama has argued that a regional approach and settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself will help defuse tensions with Iran.

Responding to a reporter’s question on the issue, Obama rejected the idea of setting “an artificial deadline” on talks with Iran. But apparently seeking to bridge the gap between his emphasis on diplomacy with Iran and Netanyahu’s hard-line approach, Obama said, “We’re not going to have talks forever,” and indicated that progress on discussions with Iran would be reassessed at the end of the year.

Referring to the Bush administration’s policies, Obama said, “The approach that we’ve been taking, which is no diplomacy, obviously has not worked … so what we’re going to do is try something new, which is actually engaging and reaching out to the Iranians.”

He said he had pressed Netanayahu on stopping the construction of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. “I shared with the Prime Minister the fact that under the roadmap and under Annapolis that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements,” Obama said. “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it’s an important one and it has to be addressed.”

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.”

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


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.