What Obama Should Say

As the president sits down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now director of foreign policy at Brookings, says Obama can turn the low expectations to his advantage.

President Obama’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday will be a private affair, according to the White House, signaling a meeting of necessity rather than desire. Netanyahu is in town to address the annual conference of AIPAC, a gathering of some seven thousand, red-meat-eating pro-Israelis who will be swarming on Capitol Hill. It would’ve been tactically unwise to snub Israel’s leader.

With expectations set so low, the meeting can still be used to good effect. Netanyahu would love to be able to declare the crisis over because he knows he will pay a political price at home if he is judged to have mishandled relations with Israel’s most important friend. As a politician, he surely understands that when Obama signs the health-care reform legislation into law, the president will have achieved a victory that will strengthen his credibility abroad as well as at home. He also knows that the U.S. and Israel are on the same page on curbing Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu regards as his highest priority. But if he is to get the president’s attention on this issue, he is going to have to assuage his anger over Jerusalem.

As long as the Palestinians are responding to Israeli seriousness in the negotiations, Netanyahu should know that the president will expect the moratorium on West Bank settlements to be extended.

What then can Obama ask of the Israeli prime minister? First, that the Israeli government avoid actions in Jerusalem that will create problems for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which are about to get under way. Bibi told AIPAC that he will not stop building in the Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem. Fair enough. But Obama should insist that the prime minister not allow Jewish building in the Arab suburbs of Jerusalem or demolition of Palestinian housing there. And that while negotiations are going on, he will avoid announcements of new tenders for building that will in any case not take place for years.

Second, Obama should insist that the negotiations be serious. Netanyahu has already conceded that the indirect talks will deal with substantive issues, not just procedural ones. But Bibi fears that Obama is just waiting for an opportunity to put an American plan on the table, which will generate a new crisis with Israel. Obama can reassure him that there will be no need to do so, if Netanyahu is willing to put a substantial offer on the table.

Bibi will also want to resurrect an assurance he received from Clinton that the United States will not surprise Israel in these negotiations. But Obama should only repeat that promise if Netanyahu is prepared to reveal to him, in complete secrecy, what he is willing to concede to the Palestinians to achieve a two-state solution. And there has to be reciprocity: no surprises from Israel either.

Third, Obama needs to put down a marker about the settlements moratorium in the West Bank, which will expire in September. As long as the Palestinians are responding to Israeli seriousness in the negotiations, Netanyahu should know that the president will expect the moratorium to be extended.

Finally, the two leaders need to reach an understanding about the way forward with Iran. With the period of engagement over, and the period of more confrontational sanctions upon Israel and the United States, Iran can be expected to do its best to break out of its growing isolation by stirring up trouble on Israel’s borders. Obama should therefore urge Netanyahu do his best to maintain calm in his neighborhood. Serious negotiations with the Palestinians will be important in this regard. But Netanyahu should also do his part to launch negotiations with the Syrians—nothing would make the Iranians more nervous, while giving the United States the ability to insist that Syria keep Hezbollah on a tight leash.

Obama sees crises as opportunities. The meeting Tuesday, on the heels of a sharp crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, provides an opportunity for the two leaders to forge a new partnership, not just on Iran, but on Middle East peacemaking too.

Martin Indyk is the vice president and director of foreign 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).