Mkhaimar Abusada
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
June 1, 2009 - 12:00am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the White House, the first such visit since US President Barack Obama came to power, revealed major differences between the two leaders. Most importantly, Netanyahu could not say the magic words, "two states for two peoples." He did concede that both Palestinians and Israelis will have to live and coexist side-by-side, and that he supported self-rule for Palestinians. But he made no mention of a state and thus failed to endorse the cornerstone of Washington's Middle East policy, underscoring a rare rift in United States-Israel relations.

No one can deny, therefore, that Israel is under growing political pressure from Obama. The latter reminded Netanyahu of Israel's commitments under the US-brokered "road map" peace plan to cease settlement activity in the West Bank, remove illegal outposts and restart serious negotiations on the final-status issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In a notable reaction, Moshe Yaalon, Israel's strategic affairs minister, explicitly rejected US demands to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank and instead vowed to continue construction. Generally, Israeli officials are trying to smoothen over differences with Washington. But they know that US-Israel relations are now entering a different stage than the one they enjoyed under the Bush administration, one that raises questions about the special relationship between the United States and Israel.

Netanyahu is not a newcomer to politics. He dealt with the Clinton administration from 1996 to 1999. He knows better than anyone that he has to accept Obama's peace principles, but is seeking to do so without endangering his coalition government.

It seems that Netanyahu has learned lessons from his prior term in power and won't fall into the same trap in which, having agreed to the Wye River memorandum in October1998, he returned home and was immediately toppled by the parties of the right. He doesn't want to see a repeat of this at the beginning of this term. One option for Netanyahu is to mobilize the pro-Israel lobby and US Congress against Obama and his administration, which proved successful during the Clinton years. Another is to reorganize his coalition and bring Kadima into the government.

Unlike Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president seems to be in complete agreement with Obama. Yet, although Abbas has reaffirmed his commitment to the two-state solution and the "road map," as well as the Annapolis understandings, his dilemma stems from the inability of Palestinians to unite politically and the failure of repeated opportunities to reconcile with Hamas.

Although Hamas rejects the road map and the Annapolis peace commitments, it appears to have accepted the idea of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders along with a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN resolution 194. This position was affirmed by Khaled Meshaal in his address to members of the British House of Commons and in his last interview with The New York Times. Nevertheless, Hamas continues to refuse to recognize Israel. Palestinians will have to act quickly to get their house in order, otherwise Obama may loose some of his enthusiasm for a two-state solution.

Obama's vision for peace in the Middle East is slated to be outlined on June 4, not at the White House or even before a joint session of Congress, but in Cairo. Obama sees engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking as crucial in repairing the damaged image of the US in the Arab and Muslim worlds and convincing moderate Arab states to join a united front against Iran.

American pressure will also be exerted on the Palestinians and Arabs to follow Obama's vision for peace. No Arab leader, political or religious, has yet agreed to give up the right of return of Palestinian refugees, which is reportedly a central pillar of the Obama vision. Obama will have to exert enormous diplomatic pressure on Palestinian and Arab leaders to convince them that this is an historic chance.

Also, the idea to internationalize the Old City of Jerusalem and its governance through the United Nations is a complicated one. It is a sacred place to both Jews and Muslims, who are deeply and passionately convinced of their right to govern there with complete sovereignty. It is this issue that led to the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000. Obama is stepping on hot coals; he may not know how to walk across.

Some say that the Middle East peace process, the most infuriating such process in the world, is at stake. If the Israeli and Palestinian positions do not change, it will certainly be no surprise if the Obama administration in the end decides to devote its energies to other, more promising pursuits.


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