Bibi's Artful Dodge

Without a larger gesture from Benjamin Netanyahu, the Arab states are unlikely to reach out to Israel in ways that could bring meaningful change.

Dan Balilty / AP Photo

Benjamin Netanyahu's speech yesterday was a baby step or two toward the Obama administration's goals: He offered a freeze on any new settlements or new land expropriations and a heavily conditioned willingness to accept Palestinian statehood. Obama's peace team will welcome those small gains and keep plodding down the road of regional confidence-building. But without a larger gesture from Netanyahu, like a real settlement freeze, the Arab states are unlikely to reach out to Israel in ways that could change the dynamic in the region and create real momentum for peace.

More fundamentally, the speech made clear Netanyahu's strong desire to dodge obligations imposed on him by previous Israeli governments and instead to negotiate Israeli-Palestinian peace with Washington, with Riyadh, or with anyone other than the Palestinians themselves. The division and militancy on the Palestinian side represent real obstacles to a peace agreement; but, at the end of the day, Israelis have to live next door to Palestinians, not Saudis or Egyptians. As Obama made clear in Cairo, no one can "deliver" Israel to the peace table except Israel's sovereign government. Likewise, Netanyahu must recognize that no one can provide Israel the "ironclad security guarantees" it seeks except the Palestinians. There is no alternative to direct, bilateral engagement between these two imperfect, politically constrained "partners."

Tamara Wittes is a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. She is also the director of the center's Middle East Democracy and Development Project.