May 18, 2009 -- President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu professed optimism today on coming to terms on issues such as Palestine and Iran, but behind their profuse praises for each other, the two leaders have clear differences on the two-state solution and the construction of settlements in disputed territories.
Weeks into his leadership, Netanyahu has refused to embrace a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, and to stop continued construction of settlements on land Israel captured in the 1967 war.
Obama, referring to the 2003 negotiations that called for the end of settlements and on the Palestinian leadership to halt terrorist attacks against Israel, said that "Under the road map, under Annapolis, there is a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements; that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That's a difficult issue. I recognize that. But it's an important one, and it has to be addressed."
"I have said before and I will repeat again that it is, I believe, in the interests not only of the Palestinians but also the Israelis and the United States and the international community to achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security," he said.
The president said Palestinians would have to provide security assurances and that the leadership needs to gain legitimacy in its own community. At the same time, Israel, Obama said, has to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the issue of settlements.
"The humanitarian situation in Gaza has to be addressed," Obama said. "The fact is that if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can't even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel's long-term security or a constructive peace track to move forward. So all these things are going to have to come together. And it's going to be difficult."
Seemingly playing the part of the diplomat, Obama said Israelis and Palestinians must "seize this opportunity and this moment" for peace. Netanyahu said he supported self-government for the Palestinians but did not openly express support for the "two-state" solution, only saying that when two people live side by side, terminology can be sorted out.
Netanyahu said that if, and when, negotiations were to start, there are two issues on which Israel is not willing to negotiate: First, that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state -- referring to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas' refusal last month to do so -- and, second, that his country needs to have the means to defend itself.
On the issue of Iran -- the topic atop Netanyahu's agenda for this meeting -- Obama said he would like to see progress with Tehran by the end of the year, but said that the United States was not closing off a "range of steps" against Iran, including sanctions, if it continues its controversial nuclear program.
He rejected an Israeli reporter's thesis that his outreach would embolden militants, adding that the strategy adopted so far has not worked.
"It's not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness," the president responded.
Obama said the United States should be able to assess, by the end of the year, how talks between the United States and Iran are developing.
"I don't want to set an artificial deadline," Obama said, when asked whether United States had set a timeframe. "I think it's important to recognize that Iran is in the midst of its own elections. ... Election time is not the best time to get business done...I believe it is not only in the interests of the international community that Iran not develop nuclear weapons; I firmly believe it is in Iran's interest not to develop nuclear weapons, because it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and be profoundly destabilizing in all sorts of ways."
Netanyahu said Iran's potential nuclear capability threatens not only Israel's security, but interests worldwide.
The two leaders praised each other profusely after the meeting, with Obama dubbing Netanyahu one with "both youth and wisdom," and the Israeli PM calling the president "a great leader."
But in the runup to the leaders' first meeting since taking on their respective posts, both came in with varying agendas. For Obama, differences about Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution was a top priority. He sees the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a crucial goal that's in America's interests.
Even if Netanyahu were inclined to support a two-state solution, his hands may be politically tied. A wide majority of parliament members in Netanyahu's conservative Likud party oppose such a move, according to the Jerusalem Post. At least seven Likud ministers are on record against a Palestinian state, according to the newspaper.
As for what was on Netanyahu's plate, the front page of a leading Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv summed it best: "Iran First."
Two-State Solution Viable?
An unnamed aide to Netanyahu said this weekend that the Israeli leader, despite the growing clamor, will not commit himself to the creation of a Palestinian state during this visit.
Today, Netanyahu was careful not to mention statehood for Palestinians, even though he said his country was willing and ready to negotiate with them. He also was mute on the issue of settlements.
Since the beginning of the year, orders to demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem have escalated and plans to expand settlements have been widely published.
Plans for a new settlement in the occupied Jordan Valley were published just today. It would be the first new settlement in the area since 1982.
For moderate Palestinian peace partners, a settlement freeze is an essential first step. From his office in Jericho, peace negotiator Saeb Erekat sounded an explicit warning in a recent conversation with ABC News.
"It's no longer relevant to say whether you are pro-Israel or pro-Palestine; this world view is now divided between those who are pro-peace and those who are against peace. Settlements are against peace," he said.
And in Silwan, an East Jerusalem neighborhood threatened with a new Jewish "archaeological park" requiring the demolition of dozens of homes, Jeff Halper, a U.S.-Israeli peace campaigner, said, "We're really playing with fire here and it's undermining everything, and all of the Obama administration's efforts to try and bring some stability and even some reconciliation."
Allies said "Bibi" -- as Netanyahu is known in Israel -- likely proposed a new road map toward peace.
Specifically, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a close Netanyahu ally, said he would call for a joint U.S.-Israel collaboration on an alternative Mideast peace policy, "which will replace previous initiatives such as the Arab initiative and the diplomatic dialogue conducted by the previous government."
Today, Netanyahu said it would be important to get other Arab states involved in a peace process.
"There's not a policy linkage between pursuing simultaneously peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, and trying to deal with removing the threat of a nuclear Iran," Netanyahu said today. "There are causal links."
Obama recently met with Jordan's King Abdullah to discuss an "Arab Peace Initiative" to get states involved in a possible peace process. "My hope would be that over the next several months, that you start seeing gestures of good faith on all sides," Obama said in the April meeting. "I don't want to get into the details of what those gestures might be, but I think that the parties in the region probably have a pretty good recognition of what intermediate steps could be taken as confidence-building measures."
King Abdullah told AFP that Obama will soon unveil a new plan for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
"We expect an announcement from the U.S. administration," Abdullah said, "of its plan to restart negotiations to achieve a comprehensive solution."
Abdullah said "a resolution to the conflict is an American strategic interest. And we hope that it will announce this plan as soon as possible, because lost time undermines the chances for peace. There is a tremendous need to move quickly, seriously and effectively."
And the king warned that "the possibilities of a new round of violence, a new war, will increase and the region and the world will pay the price," if peace talks are further delayed.
The Issue of Iran
While there was little public discussion following the meeting about whether Netanyahu committed to Obama to alerting the United States before attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, the country was certainly on top of the agenda.
In excerpts from a forthcoming Newsweek interview, the president says he gets the point. "I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are."
Regarding Iran's effort to go nuclear, he said, "We will do everything to make sure this doesn't happen.
"I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They're right there in range and I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are."
Still, Obama said "we are going to reach out" to Iran "and try to shift off of a pattern over the last 30 years that hasn't produced results in the region."
And, at the same time, he would "make an argument to Israel as an ally that the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel; that is superior to some of the other alternatives."
To prevent Israel taking matters into its own hands, according to Israeli officials and media, the United States has warned Israel not to attack Iran.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, for one, sounded optimistic Sunday.
"I think it is a very encouraging and timely proposition," Peres said at the World Economic Forum on the banks of the Dead Sea. "Time has come to depose war, hatred and terror and come to real business -- how to assure the life, the safety and the future of our children. We were negotiating with them [the Palestinians] for quite a while. I think the gap was narrowed and I do believe it is a bridgeable gap. With ... a little bit of fresh ideas, it can be bridged."
Peres met with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden earlier this month to discuss security and the two-state solution.
Biden said May 5 at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference in Washington, "With all the change you will hear about, there is one enduring, essential principle that will not change; and that is our commitment to the peace and security of the state of Israel. That is not negotiable. That is not a matter of change. That is something to be reinforced and made clear."
The wider region will be carefully scrutinizing the outcome of today's meeting. Moderate Arab allies like Jordan and Egypt are piling on the pressure for real progress.
For a U.S. president trying to re-brand America's image in the Middle East, confronting Israel's settlements will be a crucial test of resolve. His Arab audience wants to see action to match the recent change in Washington's rhetoric.