President ‘Yes, I Can’ Meets Prime Minister ‘No, You Won’t’

In a parallel universe, the Obama-Bibi meeting in Washington might actually move the needle forward on Middle East peace. It won't -- and Obama shouldn't press the issue.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

This week at the White House, President "Yes, I can" will sit down with Prime Minister "No, you won’t." The main agenda item will be the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an enterprise that might be best described — at least for now — as the walking dead. 

But no matter. When you’re the change president, you must believe even when reality tells another tale. Energized by transformative changes in the Arab world and genuinely worried that no negotiations spells trouble for America, President Barack Obama wants to push for big things on the peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is equally determined to push back against big ideas that cross his own ideology, gut instincts, and coalition constraints. The recent Palestinian unity accord and the Syrian-orchestrated Palestinian demonstrations along the Israel-Syria border will only help him parry any American pressure.

It would be nice to imagine that out of this American-Israeli yin and yang might come a common way forward. And if this were some more enlightened parallel universe, Bibi and Obama just might find it.

The prime minister would confide in the president that he was prepared to be bold on borders and Jerusalem; the president could then use that with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the next several months to set the stage for negotiations and an agreement. The coming train wreck at the United Nations this fall on Palestinian statehood could then be avoided.

Back on Earth, however, it’s more likely that the meeting will produce neither breakthrough nor breakdown. Nobody wants a fight now simply because there’s no peace process to fight about. Even the president understands how complex the Palestinian unity accord has made matters.

But neither the president nor the prime minister has a strategy, except to give speeches; and because the Palestinians do have one — a U.N. initiative on statehood –we’re likely to drift toward that default position unless something better turns up.

Mark Twain famously claimed that history doesn’t repeat; it rhymes. And we’ve seen several versions of the Obama-Bibi meetings before.

There’s not a great deal of personal chemistry or trust there. Bill Clinton didn’t much care for Netanyahu, but understood the politician in him. Obama doesn’t care for or understand the Israeli prime minister. He sees him as a con man and an obstacle — a kind of big speed bump on his way to solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the president is cold, with little empathy when it comes to understanding Israeli needs; he sees the president as situating Israel along the continuum of American interests, not its values. For Bibi, Obama falls somewhere between Jimmy Carter and Bush 41 on the Israeli sensitivity scale.

This interpersonal dynamic hasn’t changed, but circumstances have made it worse. Two years in, Obama is even more frustrated with his failure to move the peace process forward. The Arab spring has roiled the region with big changes; somehow the president believes there should be a big peace-process transformation to accompany it. After all, Fatah and Hamas are moving toward unity; the Libyan and Syrian regimes are on the ropes. And if something isn’t done on the peace process, the new Arab democrats may be thwarted by Islamic radicals.

The president feels Palestinian pain, but worries that the U.N. initiative on statehood will make matters worse. He’s tired of catering to the Israelis but isn’t quite sure how to move things forward. The Palestinian U.N. statehood initiative is a problem because the Americans don’t have an answer to it; indeed, it reflects a painful reality that Washington has lost real leverage on a signature issue. From Obama’s perspective, after his triumph over Osama bin Laden, meeting Netanyahu and dealing with the peace process is a real downer.

Netanyahu doesn’t exactly see the world this way. More than most Israeli prime ministers, he sleeps with one eye open. Everywhere he looks the glass is half-empty. The Arab spring has brought uncertainty: Hosni Mubarak is gone; maybe Bashar al-Assad too. Abbas has climbed into bed with Hamas, and now Obama — whom he doesn’t trust — seems ready to push the peace process at Israel’s expense.

For Bibi, the peace process is a headache. If it gets serious, his coalition will break; he’ll have to confront his ideological red lines and his fundamental suspicions of the Arabs. Without a peace process, particularly if he’s blamed, he could see his relationship with the United States head south. At the moment, he’s actually in a pretty good position to walk that fine line.

Yes, the Republicans and much of the organized Jewish community will stand by him. But it’s the Palestinians who are Bibi’s real allies. Abbas has given him an incredible gift by unifying with Hamas. Unless Hamas abandons the armed struggle, releases the kidnapped Israeli soldier it has held as hostage, and recognizes Israel, Netanyahu is more or less untouchable at home and can parry American pressure should there be any. He can say more in sorrow than in anger that Abbas has made a grave mistake and should return to negotiations rather than snuggle up to Hamas or the United Nations. As long as Hamas officials continue to glorify bin Laden and call for the liberation of all of historic Palestine, Netanyahu won’t have to worry much about U.S. pressure.

The one wild card in all this would be a Palestinian version of the Arab spring. Syrian-orchestrated Palestinian incursions across the border actually help the prime minister fend off pressure from inside Israel and out. But a massive and sustained Palestinian uprising — civilian and peaceful — in which, day after day, hundreds of thousands press against the checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza, would create real pressure. It’s a dangerous tactic and could easily lead to violence, and it’s unclear how or why it would create pressure for negotiations. But it could become part of the Palestinians’ strategy as they contemplate their U.N. statehood initiative in the fall.

The Obama administration really is in a box when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. There has been a lot of talk about the president giving a major speech to lay out the principles the United States supports on the big issues, such as borders and Jerusalem.

But you have to wonder what this would actually accomplish. It will upset the Israelis (and the Palestinians, too, when the administration talks about the refugee issue and rules out the right of return). And why would any would-be mediator — with the chance of negotiations anytime soon near zero — want to put out positions only to have them attacked, devalued, and marginalized? A speech would only highlight the gap between American words and actions; it could become the foreign-policy equivalent of BP’s Deepwater Horizon: It’s day 50 and nobody has yet accepted the president’s peace plan.

Any honest person would admit that there’s no chance of successful negotiations or a peace process now. A big idea or initiative to try to launch them will fail; indeed, putting Abbas and Netanyahu in the same room given the gaps between them would be a disaster.

Instead of public diplomacy, the president should run silent and deep. No deadlines, no big speeches, no threats. Quietly see what Bibi and Abbas will put in your pocket on the big issues; see where Palestinian unity goes and where the Arab spring is headed. For now, keep your powder dry and revisit your big speech later in the year. It may come in handy as an alternative vision of how to actually produce a real state through negotiations rather than the virtual one the Palestinians are planning at the United Nations.

That there are no good ideas to make the peace process work now is no reason to run with half-baked ones. Woody Allen was wrong: 90 percent of life isn’t just showing up — it’s showing up at the right time. And now isn’t the right time for a major peace-process move.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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