On a recent trip to the Middle East organized by Israel Policy Forum, we had an opportunity to speak with a number of Palestinian and Israel officials and analysts, all of whom acknowledged the significance of the scheduled July 6 meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While considerable disagreements exist between Israelis and Palestinians on a number of key questions, in our meetings we found rare unanimity among them on one thing: both Israelis and Palestinians are deeply confused as to President Obama’s strategy for reaching a final agreement.
Both Obama and Netanyahu have a powerful interest in the meeting’s success, and in its being seen as such by their respective publics. With growing tensions perceived in the US-Israel relationship, and the pressing need to strengthen the partnership and reach a consensus for moving forward, there is a great deal riding on this meeting. But it should not be considered successful unless it offers clarity on a number of core issues.
In describing the current situation, one Israeli analyst put it this way: "Obama has a vision but no strategy, while Netanyahu has a strategy but no vision." The president knows where he wants to end up, but not how to get there, while the prime minister seems concerned primarily with protecting his political flanks and avoiding hard decisions. A successful meeting, therefore, requires the elucidation of a clear strategy from Obama — what are the steps that he intends to take from proximity talks to direct talks, and from there to the end goal of two states for two peoples?
Netanyahu must also clarify his own vision of that goal. His Bar-Ilan University speech in May 2009 represented significant change for a leader who had previously refused to recognize the Palestinians’ national rights, but it was still heavily caveated, raising as many questions as it answered in regard to the actual steps he would be willing to take for an end-of-conflict agreement. As Gen. David Petraeus told Congress in March, the continuing conflict is a key driver of instability and anti-Americanism in the region. It is therefore in the U.S. national security interest that the conflict be resolved. Netanyahu should acknowledge this.
President Obama should address Israel’s security concerns, such as the discomfort over the recent Non-Proliferation Treaty review, which many Israelis feel inappropriately targeted Israel’s nuclear program while giving Iran a pass. Notwithstanding the incessant neoconservative drumbeat that Obama is "selling Israel out," there was consensus among the Israeli officials with whom we spoke that military cooperation and intelligence sharing between the US and Israel is robust. However, a number of Israeli analysts voiced concern over the lack of a deep strategic dialogue between the two countries. President Obama should commit to strengthening and deepening this dialogue in order to address any significant gaps between the US’s and Israel’s views of the emerging threats to regional security. It is not necessary for the US to adopt wholesale Israel’s strategic perspective, but it is imperative for the peace process that Israelis know the adminstration takes their perspective very seriously.
Likewise, Netanyahu must recognize that American credibility suffers when Israel refuses to adhere to its past commitments. Under the 2002 "Roadmap" promulgated by the Bush administration, Israel agreed to halt settlement growth. Yet Netanyahu refused to honor this when pressed by Obama, ultimately agreeing only to a limited ten-month settlement moratorium in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem. The settlement problem is, of course, not the greatest threat in the region, but it is one that resonates deeply among Arab and Muslim publics. As such, it is an American national interest that settlement activity be halted beyond the agreed upon time frame. Israel, indeed the region, suffers when America looks weak. And yet, Netanyahu’s rebuff of the president’s request for a full freeze contributed to that very sense of American weakness. If Israel’s settlement moratorium is not extended by the end of September, the US, and the peace process, will suffer another setback.
Finally, there should be an acknowledgment of the achievements in Palestinian security occurring under the current Palestinian Authority leadership, and that the Israelis have in President Mahmoud Abbas a true Palestinian partner for peace. Indeed, the Israelis have already implicitly recognized this through the depth and extent of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in the West Bank, which would simply not exist if Israelis did not feel they had such a partner. It is time now for Netanyahu to make that recognition explicit.
There are other issues — the situation in Gaza, Palestinian political disunity, the continuing problem of incitement by both sides — that will need to be addressed in due course, but the foregoing represent the most pressing. The Israelis and Palestinians with whom we met recognize the period between now and September — when the settlement moratorium ends, and the Arab League reviews its endorsement of the proximity talks — as a window of opportunity to jumpstart the peace process and provide both the horizon and strategy needed to enable the parties to move forward. The July 6 meeting offers Obama and Netanyahu a chance to re-forge their relationship and seize that opportunity.
Matthew Duss is a National Security Researcher at the Center for American Progress. David Halperin is the Assistant Director of Israel Policy Forum.