Dan Diker: When Netanyahu meets Obama

Dan Diker is the foreign policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affaris and our occasional correspondent from Israel. This morning he provides his take on the upcoming meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu:

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has his work cut out for him to help make a success of his upcoming meeting with US President Barack Obama on Monday. Its is not going to be easy. It surely won’t be the Bush-Sharon bosom buddy partnership. Remember the old “7 Up” ad? This is the “un-Bush” administration. No more Axis of Evil. No more tough talk with the Palestinians. The mainstream media environment is charged and eager for conflict.

While there are a number of land mines such as the basic disagreement over Palestinian-Iranian linkage, at the core Netanyahu and Obama may still share a common language. Harvard Law School meets MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Both men also reject Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons, although what this means in Obama’s case is difficult to fathom at this point. Obama actually liked Netanyahu’s ideas about “bottom-up peace making” on the Palestinian track which he and Netanyahu discussed in their July 2008 meeting in Jerusalem just months before Obama became president and Netanyahu prime minister.

Obama had also clearly called for defensible borders for Israel and a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty at last year’s annual AIPAC meeting before the famous clarification was issued. According to a senior Israeli source, Obama and Netanyahu also saw eye to eye on the Iranian threat in their summer 2008 meeting.

Judging by Netanyahu’s record as Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999, the administration should be quite pleased to welcome their new Israeli counterpart. Netanyahu’s warning during his July 1996 speech to both houses of Congress about Iran’s race for regional supremacy under a nuclear umbrella was dead on target. His warning to the Clinton administration that Yasser Arafat and his gangster “kleptocracy” was playing a double game together with Hamas–now an Iranian proxy– has also been vindicated . And when it came to painful concessions, it was Netanyahu who carried out the 1997 Hebron accords and 1998 Wye agreements.

Netanyahu won’t get that credit. The overriding sense in Obama’s circles is that, despite the current Likud-Labor partnership and the broad Israeli public support for Netanyahu, this Israeli government is hawkish both on Iran and on the Palestinians while being very “soft” on West Bank settlements and unauthorized outposts. I am not so sure. Netyanyahu will enforce the rule of law and outlaw any unauthorized building.

Somewhat incredibly, even after Israel’s high risk and failed Gaza withdrawal experiment and 10,000 Iranian backed Hamas rockets fired from the “Israeli free” Strip, the administration still considers settlements to be no less of a threat to peace and a “two state solution” than Palestinian terrorism itself.

The US perception of the Netanyahu government as right wing, hawkish, and “settler friendly” is one of the keys to understanding the administration’s rejection of Netanyahu’s argument that it is impossible to make any political progress with the Palestinian Authority while Iran controls Gaza and is working to destabilize Judea and Samaria, despite an IDF security presence, via Iranian-backed proxies.

Last week, a former senior White House official in the Bush administration told me that the administration’s problem with the Israelis is the “messenger” more than the “message.” That’s why it’s vitally important for Obama to hear Netanyahu’s “Iran must be stopped first message” from Arab allies who are equally threatened by Iran and its terror proxies such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who will meet twice with Obama in the coming weeks both in Washington and Cairo.

One of the difficult differences between Netanyahu and Obama concerns their fundamentally different views over the linkage of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process to the containment of Iran’s nuclear charged race to destroy Israel and achieve regional dominance. Netanyahu rejects linking the Palestinian issue to Iran. His view is that Iran is a nuclear existential threat to Israel and Arab states via terror proxies and must be stopped now at all costs. Period. The Palestinian conflict predated Iran’s ascension and has not been resolved over the past 61 years; it will likely continue to be a major problem even after the Iranian regime is contained or neutralized.

Obama and his advisors simply don’t see it that way. They are convinced that making great strides towards establishing a Palestinian state will help coalesce the Arab world against Iran. Arab leaders have been whispering in Obama’s ear since his first day in office that Iran is undermining Arab regimes by exploiting the Palestinian issue via Hezbollah and Hamas to inflame the Arab street. This is a silly argument. Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamist servant groups are ideologically and religiously motivated, they are not driven by Palestinian or other grievances. Besides, Iranian-backed Hamas has been subverting the US and Israeli backed Palestinian Authority first in Gaza and now in the West Bank; it will never allow a US-backed Palestinian state to arise.

Netanyahu and Obama can find a way to square the circle on this issue. I understand from a trusted friend who attended a small closed door dinner with Rahm Emanuel at last Week’s AIPAC conference that Obama’s close confidant was misquoted on the Palestinian-Iran linkage issue. The source said Emanuel specifically did not make Israeli Palestinian peace progress a precondition of US-Israel cooperation on Iran but merely suggested that it would make coalition-building far easier.

I expect the storm clouds to pass and to see at least partly sunny diplomatic weather in Washington next week.

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