Did Obama Get Suckered?

Far from taking risks for peace, like freezing settlements, the Israeli prime minister just laid down new preconditions. Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel and director of the Saban Center at Brookings on what Obama didn't get from Netanyahu.

05.19.09 7:27 PM ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press availability with President Obama at the White House on Monday conjures up memories of a time 16 years ago, when a young new president, committed to achieving Middle East peace, stood next to a newly elected Israeli prime minister and inaugurated a partnership in peacemaking.

Then, as on Monday, they had just concluded an extensive private meeting in which Yitzhak Rabin had told Bill Clinton he was willing to make a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights to achieve peace with Syria. Reflecting the tone but not the content of that secret conversation, Clinton told the assembled press that Rabin had expressed a willingness to take risks for peace and that he had responded to the Israeli leader, “If you do that, my role is to minimize those risks.”

Netanyahu was completely silent on the settlements freeze in public; in private, I’m told, he said it would be difficult to do.

Whatever else happened in the private Netanyahu-Obama meeting, this Israeli prime minister certainly didn’t sound like he was willing to take any risks for peace. Reflecting his fear of antagonizing his right-wing supporters, Netanyahu avoided publicly committing himself to accepting an independent Palestinian state as the outcome of peace negotiations. Instead, he spoke of “self-government” for the Palestinians and laid down what sounded like a new precondition: The Palestinians would have to “allow Israel the means to defend itself.”

What Netanyahu apparently means by that is a Palestinian state minus the means to defend itself, or to control its airspace, or its international passageways. Not unreasonable concerns given Israel’s experience with Gaza, but to put forward such requirements at the outset looks more like a well-practiced Netanyahu negotiating tactic: Raise the bar as high as possible and require the United States to lift the Palestinians over it before he has to make any concessions.

So too with the new potential for Arab state involvement in the peace process: Netanyahu correctly identifies the shared concern of the U.S., Israel, and the Arab states about Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions and its aggressive nuclear program. In Obama’s view, working with Arab leaders to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help counter Iran. But Netanyahu appears to have tasked Obama with the challenge of bringing these Arab leaders to the peace party without indicating what he will do either to get them there or to reward them for the risk of coming. That’s an invitation they will easily refuse. And if they do, will Netanyahu then have the explanation he needs for taking no risks himself?

There’s one Israeli action that might help move things forward, and Obama was not shy in bringing it up at the press conference—Israel’s roadmap obligation to stop settlements. A real settlements freeze would give Palestinians renewed hope in negotiations and boost the failing fortunes of their president, Mahmoud Abbas. And if Netanyahu were willing to live up to that commitment, Obama might be able to persuade the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs to reciprocate by normalizing relations with Israel—through diplomatic engagement, direct flights, phone communications, etc. Such confidence-building steps could in turn give Israelis greater faith in the potential of peace with the Arab world. Not exactly a breakthrough, but some baby steps in the right direction. Only trouble is Netanyahu was completely silent on the settlements freeze in public; in private, I’m told, he said it would be difficult to do.

Netanyahu’s approach is understandable if all he plans to do with his second term as Israel’s prime minister is to maintain his unruly coalition. Perhaps it was in the hope that he is made of more Rabin-like qualities that Obama suggested in their press conference that he might rise to this historic occasion. But Bibi didn’t respond to the enticement of potential statesmanship, either.

Perhaps Netanyahu is governed by fear of Iran’s existential threat to Israel. He certainly makes the case to American interlocutors that unless Iran is prevented from acquiring nukes, any Israeli territorial concessions will only bring Iran’s rejectionist proxies closer to Israel’s borders. That’s because, in his view, faced with Iranian nuclear power, all the Arabs will scurry to seek protection in its cat’s paw. But in this regard, Netanyahu received two gifts from Obama. First, in a Newsweek interview published the day the Israeli PM arrived in Washington, the president said that “all options are on the table,” meaning that he did not rule out using force to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. At their joint press conference, the president went a step further, detailing a deadline of the end of this year for assessing progress for his effort at diplomatic engagement with Iran. That should have been music to Bibi’s ears, but it too failed to evoke a response.

The last time Bibi was prime minister, in the 1990s, he made much of the argument that he was no sucker; that he would not give without getting. Unless Obama heard something different from Netanyahu in their private meeting, this time our president might end up being the sucker. That’s no way to start a new American-Israeli partnership.

Martin Indyk is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of the recently published Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East (Simon & Schuster 2009).