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Bibi Comes Calling:  What President Obama Needs to Say

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When Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, visits the Oval Office on Monday, both he and President Barack Obama have a domestic political interest in “making nice” with one another. Netanyahu has to show Israelis back home that his efforts to derail the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, following his outrageous speech to a joint session of Congress last spring, have not seriously damaged his country’s relations with the United States, Israel’s only firm supporter in the world. Obama also wants to show the American Jewish community that he bears no grudge, as he seeks its support for other elements of his foreign and domestic policies and as he paves the way for his successor in January 2017.

But there is also serious substantive business to do. Israel wants to be reassured, once again, that the recent conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran does not portend a major shift in US policy toward the Islamic Republic. Israel is worried about Hezbollah in Lebanon but also Iran’s potential reentry into civilized society, where it will become a major competitor for regional influence that has already persuaded Israel and several Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, to make common cause. For all of them, Iran remains a pariah, and they have a joint interest in limiting US-Iranian rapprochement.

Israel will also want to complete work on a 10-year extension of its security agreement with the US, which runs out in 2017. This will certainly be agreed to, at least in principle. At about $3 billion a year in military aid, Israel wants this figure to be bounced up to $5 billion. Obama may not be willing to go that far. And Israel will want to intensify the agreements, some tacit, some explicit, under which the US is supposed to “coordinate” its overall Middle East approaches with Jerusalem.

What Obama Wants

Obama also has items on his agenda. Beyond a shared interest in presenting a calm and mutually supportive relationship, he wants to get Netanyahu to “call off the dogs” in the continuing US debate about the JCPOA and its implementation. Groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is a politically potent and reliable reflection of Israeli government thinking, continue to try limiting the pacing of the agreement, especially in terms of sanctions relief. These groups also have consistently portrayed Iranian behavior, both under the agreement and in general, in the worst light possible. Netanyahu could have a good deal of influence in Washington, but whether he will be responsive is another matter (Obama is unlikely to raise this sensitive issue, himself, but rather to relegate it to subordinates).

But within the framework of offering reassurances to Israel and Sunni Arab states about where the US heart really lies, the president also needs to be able to work with Iran on the pressing issue of Syria and, directly related to it, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and other terrorist groups. Although neither of these problems directly affects American security, they have a significant impact on European allies, beginning with the massive migration that is posing the gravest challenge to the European Union for many years. Further, the US president has to think about America’s reputation for both leadership and steadfastness, not just concerning the implementation of the JCPOA but also its continued engagement in the Middle East in general. Both are now in considerable doubt, and both are complicated mightily by the entry of Russia into the Syrian fray.

Iran has to be part of the mix if the United States is to achieve any of its objectives—both on the ground and in the realm of perception by friend and foe alike. Whether Iran will be a help or a hindrance is still far from clear. Iranian hardliners, after all, have pushed back against the JCPOA. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, has balanced his support for the agreement with a renewal of harsh rhetoric about the United States, a position compounded for American opinion by the imprisonment of a number of US-Iranian dual nationals.

“Cut me some slack,” will be Obama’s request of Netanyahu on this score. At the very least, the president will ask the Israeli leader to resist the temptation to cause any impediments to American tactics in the important struggles for power, position, and peacemaking taking place just to the east of Israel. The US long ago painted itself into a corner by saying that the departure of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has to be a precondition of any diplomatic process, a demand it continued to put forward in the most recent meeting in Vienna that included Russia and, for the first time, Iran as well. As Obama tries to square the circle on this one, he does not need any coaching from the sidelines.

Peace with Palestine?

The ghost at the banquet on Monday will be the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Both Netanyahu and Obama will pay lip service, but that is about it. Although US interests and efforts in the Middle East as a whole would be immensely aided by serious progress on this front—a proposition that no serious observer rejects—nothing will happen for the balance of this administration and well into the next. Obama made this clear last week, presumably to keep it off the agenda with Netanyahu. He is not wrong to do so, given that neither Israel nor the Palestinians are at the moment prepared to budge in any serious way. Israel faces turmoil elsewhere in its neighborhood as well as some Palestinian violence at home (plus the opposition to a two-state solution that prevails among Netanyahu’s entourage). Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is politically weak and could not in any event bring along Gaza, against which Israel maintains a major economic blockade, thus inhibiting the emergence of any political rival to Hamas.

If by contrast with caution, Obama decided to go for broke and help his successor have a more solid basis than now for advancing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, he could take three steps. The first would be to proclaim the so-called Clinton Parameters of January 2000 as the necessary basis for any negotiations in which the US will take part. They are, in fact, the best outline yet proposed, as virtually all serious and sincere observers agree.

The second step would be a clear US demand that all Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank cease forthwith—full stop—certainly in all areas that are likely to be part of a Palestinian state, in the (increasingly unlikely) event that one will ever be created. The US has a lot of leverage if it chooses to use it.

The third step would be asking for serious reciprocal actions by the Palestinian Authority, beginning with an intensified clamp-down on violence emanating from the West Bank, whether against Jewish settlers there or in Israel proper. Israel can make further suggestions that, if reasonable, the US should support.

Do not expect the United States to propose any of these three steps this week. Obama has too much else on his plate in the Middle East to risk giving Netanyahu motive or excuse to relaunch a political assault on the US president.

In the final analysis, in the Obama-Netanyahu meetings and in other US diplomacy regarding the Middle East, the United States needs to make clear a general policy that applies to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states as much as to Israel: America’s strategic partnerships with friends in the region must become a genuine two-way street not just a one-way provision by Washington of military goods and services and security commitments. If Obama adopts this position and gives it teeth, he will greatly improve the chances that the United States can succeed with its overall objectives in the Middle East, which would also benefit Israel and other regional states. In any event, “American interests first” is always a good approach.

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