Stephen M. Walt

The beginning of a beautiful friendship?

The beginning of a beautiful friendship?

There’s been plenty of speculation in recent weeks about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House this week. I don’t think the visit will be particularly significant, however, and we probably won’t have a good sense of where U.S.-Israeli relations are headed for a few more months.

To be sure, there are plenty of signs that Obama and Netanyahu aren’t on the same page when it comes to some critically important issues involving the Middle East. Obama wants a two-state solution soon, but Netanyahu is at best ambivalent about that goal and may in fact be firmly opposed to it. Netanyahu wants prompt and vigorous action to stop Iran’s nuclear program — including the use of military force if necessary — while Obama appears to believe that military threats are counterproductive and military action could be disastrous. Obama and his team have also signaled that they will not be as deferential to Israel as was the Bush administration. Given all this, one might expect some fireworks in the Oval Office tomorrow.

That won’t happen, however, because neither leader has an interest in an open clash at this point. Netanyahu heads a fragile governing coalition back in Israel that is already showing serious signs of strain, and public perceptions that he was jeopardizing ties with the United States by picking a public fight with a popular president would only make his political problems back home worse. Similarly, Obama has a long list of other problems to worry about these days, and a public fight with Israel and its powerful supporters here in the United States would be a distraction he doesn’t need at this point. Most importantly, there isn’t any concrete issue on the table at the moment for them to quarrel about; this is a “get-acquainted” meeting where positions and preferences may get sketched but where the emphasis will be on trying to establish a personal rapport.

Accordingly, the two leaders may present different views, but they are likely to try to minimize their differences and convey cordiality. Netanyahu may even express some mild rhetorical support for some sort of two-state outcome, while doing his best to keep the focus on Iran and hoping that the “peace process” drags on without Israel have to make any genuine concessions. This appears to be the line that AIPAC and other parts of what M.J. Rosenberg calls the "status quo" lobby are taking: they would also like to avoid a public fight and want to minimize any perception of a serious gap between Obama on the one hand and Netanyahu and themselves on the other. Their strategy, which is reflected in the letter that AIPAC wrote for Representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Steney Hoyer (D-MD) to send to Obama, is to pay lip-service to the two-state solution while imposing so many preconditions on the Palestinians that meaningful progress is impossible. One suspects that hardliners in the lobby will push Netanyahu to adopt a similar approach, and it would be surprising if he did not follow their advice.

There are two important questions on the table, and neither will be answered tomorrow. First, will the Obama administration elaborate and commit itself to a concrete vision that specifies in some detail what a two-state solution would entail? Or will it continue to invoke the "two-state" mantra while declaring that it is up to the (deeply-divided) Israelis and (deeply-divided) Palestinians to negotiate the terms?

Second, will Obama be willing to use U.S. leverage on both sides — and not just the Palestinians — to push them towards a solution? This step is essential to getting an agreement, which is one reason why AIPAC and other hard-line groups will fight against any signs of evenhandedness by Washington. If the United States continues to act as "Israel’s lawyer," as it did during the Oslo process, there won’t be any deal, which would suit the "status quo" types just fine. But please do remember that if there is no two-state solution, then the only alternatives are a binational democracy (not a good idea), ethnic cleansing (even worse) or apartheid (indefensible and unsustainable). Needless to say, each of these other options will be bad for the United States and a disaster for Israel.

Nonetheless, Obama could begin to lay the foundation for genuine progress by speaking candidly tomorrow. Once the pleasantries are over, here’s what I hope the president will say:

Obama: "Mr. Prime Minister, I have five points to make about relations between our two countries and the situation in the Middle East.

First, I was elected president of the United States, and my foreign policy will be guided by what I believe to be the American national interest.

Second, I am convinced—as are all of my foreign policy advisors, all of America’s other allies around the world, and my predecessor in the Oval Office — that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinians is the only feasible way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This means the creation of a viable Palestinian state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, with mutually agreed-upon arrangements on security, air and water rights, the status of Jerusalem, custody over the holy sites there, and the refugee issue. Not only do I believe that this outcome is still possible and in the U.S. national interest, but I also believe — like your predecessor, Ehud Olmert — that Israel’s own future is imperiled if there is no two-state solution.

Third, like you, I am deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, and I am committed to taking all feasible measures to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. But threatening Iran with military force or regime change merely reinforces its desire for a nuclear deterrent of its own, and only broad-based diplomacy without preconditions stands any chance of heading this option off. Military strikes can delay but not prevent Iran from getting a bomb, and would make both our situation and your situation worse over the longer term. Fortunately, Israel not only has a strong alliance with the United States, but it has its own nuclear arsenal, which is the best guarantee of Israel’s survival.

Fourth, in addition to removing a major grievance that terrorists use to recruit followers and justify violence against both of our countries, ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will undermine Iran’s influence in the region and make it easier to coordinate a regional response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In short, if you are worried about Iran, you need to work with me to achieve a two-state solution as soon as possible.

Fifth, the United States has been committed to Israel’s existence and well-being for 61 years, and that policy will not change while I am president. But I have learnt in life that when a good friend is headed for trouble, you don’t do them any favors by remaining silent, or by continuing to offer uncritical or unconditional support. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a troubled friend is to use your influence to get them to change their behavior. We have pressured the Palestinians to accept Israel’s existence and to build effective state institutions, and we will continue to do so. And if necessary, I will use U.S. influence to convince Israel to do what it must in order finally achieve a lasting peace with its neighbors. And if I make the case for that approach to the American people, I am confident they will support me."

And here’s what I’d like Netanyahu to say in reply:

Netanyahu:
"I appreciate your candor, Mr. President. Given our difficult circumstances, Israel needs true friends who are committed to its existence but who are willing to speak openly and honestly with us. I admit I held different views when I sat down here, but you’ve convinced me that we need to change course. I will need your help to make this work, but I want to join forces to make your vision a reality. Upon my return to Israel, I will announce a complete halt to all settlement construction in the Occupied Territories — including "natural growth" — and we will begin removing unnecessary checkpoints as a good-will gesture. And when I meet with other politicians and with members of the American Jewish community later today, I will ask them to back you in your efforts to bring a lasting peace to the region."

OK, I don’t really expect either man to say these things when they meet. But even a realist can dream, can’t he?