By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 4:05 PM
President Obama's meeting with Shimon Peres this afternoon marked a first step in the new administration's relationship with Israel. But it comes at a time when the two governments disagree sharply over what constitutes the biggest long-term threat to the Jewish state and how best to achieve peace in the region.
Peres, Israel's president, is serving mostly as a scout on this trip to Washington on behalf of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who took office at the end of March and will meet with Obama for the first time on May 18. Israel's presidency is a largely ceremonial post, and Peres, as a former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is his country's most recognizable ambassador.
But he is representing an Israeli government that does not share his views -- nor, more importantly, the Obama administration's -- on how to make peace with the Palestinians.
Peres and Obama agree that the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel -- roughly along the lines of the pre-June1967 borders -- is the best way to preserve Israel's security and character as a Jewish and democratic state.
Netanyahu, who in 1996 defeated Peres in direct elections for prime minister, does not. Skilled in the ways of Washington, the MIT-educated prime minister has declined to explicitly embrace the "two states for two peoples" formula that has guided U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years.
While Obama and Peres largely agree that peace with the Palestinians would secure wider Arab recognition for Israel and improve its long-term security prospects, Netanyahu believes another issue must come first: preventing Iran from achieving the ability to make nuclear weapons. The Obama administration believes peace with the Palestinians would bring the region's Sunni Arab governments more squarely on Israel's side against Shiite Iran, whose ambitions in the Gulf and beyond alarm Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others.
"This president spent time the very first day he worked in the Oval Office on Middle East peace," press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday. "And I think this is the beginning of many steps."
As he was leaving the White House today, Peres talked with reporters about Obama's efforts on Iran, saying Israel should endorse the U.S. policy.
"We should be loyal supporters," Peres said, according to the Reuters news agency. "If it will succeed, it can be the best thing."
In an interview last month, Peres acknowledged that the Obama administration "wants Israel to renew negotiations" with the Palestinians, namely through the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is led by Mahmoud Abbas. The umbrella organization does not include Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip.
"Netanyahu said he wants to have both economic relations and political negotiations," Peres said. "It goes together. He will start it soon. I do believe that Netanyahu has a sense of timing. And the historical watch is occasionally impatient."
But neither Netanyahu nor his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has ever formally endorsed the goal of such talks -- the creation of a Palestinian state in territory Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East War.
In his remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Monday night, Peres said, "Binyamin Netanyahu was at one time my political opponent. Today, he is my prime minister. He knows history and wants to make history. In our tradition, making history is making peace, and I am sure that peace is his priority."
But Peres was less specific than he has been in the past about what shape that peace agreement would take. He also noted that "the aggressiveness of the Iranian government is not limited to Israel. Indeed, they seek regional hegemony and want to control Arab states using terror and coercion."
Lieberman has perhaps come closer than Netanyahu to endorsing a two-state solution, even suggesting that some Arab-majority areas of what is now Israel should be carved off and included in a future Palestinian state in the West Bank. But the ethnic edge to Lieberman's policies -- he has recommend that Israel's Arab citizens be required to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state -- have made him an unlikely diplomat.
In a speech this morning, Vice President Biden told the AIPAC convention that Israel must accept a two-state solution and urged the government to stop settlement construction in the West Bank, dismantle unauthorized outposts that often grow into full-fledged settlements, and allow Palestinians greater freedom of movement.
The advocacy group, which has long monopolized the issue of Israel on Capitol Hill, is now facing a rival in J Street, a lobbying group that is pushing U.S. lawmakers to encourage the Israeli government to make peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu appears to be trying to reduce his role, at least when it comes to U.S. diplomacy. On Sunday, Netanyahu named Michael Oren, a noted Israeli historian who was born in New Jersey, to serve as his ambassador to Washington.
Oren has taught at Yale University, served in the Israeli army, and written acclaimed histories of the 1967 war and U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East since its founding. During Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and last year in Gaza, Oren has been called up to serve as a military spokesman, underscoring his ability to explain Israeli interests to an international audience.
Today's White House meeting comes as Khaled Mashal, the exiled political leader of Hamas, has reiterated his proposal to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in return for a 10-year truce with Israel.
In an interview with the New York Times, Mashal said he would not formally recognize the Jewish state, which the Obama administration has demanded as a pre-requisite for talks with the group, whose 1987 charter calls for Israel's destruction.
But he said Hamas fighters had stopped firing rockets into southern Israel, and said, "I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period."
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Jerusalem contributed to this report.