Obama and Israel's Netanyahu Likely to Have Calm Meeting Despite Differences

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

When President Obama meets one on one with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office tomorrow morning, one thing is virtually guaranteed not to happen: fireworks.

The potential for conflict is there. Obama has stressed his belief in the creation of a Palestinian state and in pursuing diplomacy with Iran on its nuclear ambitions, while Netanyahu is highly skeptical of both endeavors. But analysts and officials in both governments said it is in neither man's interest to have a public spat.

"For different but complementary reasons, both Obama and Netanyahu do not want this meeting to fail," said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and a foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign.

The Obama administration has only the wisps of a policy toward the Middle East in place, with many key decisions still to be made. The president appointed a special envoy for peace, former senator George J. Mitchell, and has sought to engage Iran. But with the Palestinians weak and divided, and the new Israeli government skeptical of high-profile peace efforts, many key strategic questions remain unanswered.

Iran dominated a meeting two weeks ago between Netanyahu and CIA Director Leon Panetta, who stopped in Jerusalem during a Middle East tour. According to a government official familiar with the talks, the two sides discussed stark differences in their assessments of how quickly Iran might acquire nuclear arms.

Israeli officials say they could face a nuclear-armed Iran less than a year after the Iranian government makes a political decision to build such a weapon. The prospect has prompted Israeli military planners to consider options for preemptively attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have cautioned against such a unilateral strike. During his visit, Panetta delivered no specific warnings but outlined the serious consequences such an attack could have in the region and beyond, the official said.

In its Arab-Israeli policy, the Obama administration appears eager to coax small but symbolic confidence-building measures from all sides, especially Arab states, to build up a sense of momentum. In a speech this month before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel group, Vice President Biden declared: "Now is the time for Arab states to make meaningful gestures, to show the Israeli leadership and the people that the promise of ending Israel's isolation in the region is real and genuine. They must take action now."

The hope is that Arab states -- Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar are considered the likeliest candidates -- would open direct telephone connections with Israel and allow Israeli commercial aircraft to fly over their territory, among other symbolic steps. The approach appears to ask little or nothing of Israel, though it is unlikely the Arab states would make such gestures unless Israel began to fulfill commitments to freeze settlement growth or permit greater freedom of movement in Palestinian areas.

Many analysts and Arab diplomats are skeptical the effort will amount to much, and thus they think bolder moves will need to be contemplated in the future.

"Fighting or pressuring Israel makes sense if an administration has its ducks lined up and can produce something in negotiations that makes the fight worthwhile," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department peace negotiator. "The Obama administration isn't ready for that yet, since neither its Iran nor Arab-Israeli strategy is set."

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has had a faltering start as prime minister, mostly over his handling of the budget. He has earned intense criticism for making deals to restore proposed cuts in an effort to keep his coalition members happy.

"He needs to have a success and to look like he is on solid terms with the United States and Obama," said Samuel W. Lewis, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel for eight years.

Although Netanyahu has hesitated to commit to the diplomatic code of a "two-state solution," his government has reaffirmed its support of the "road map" that would result in a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has also stressed his interest in improving the Palestinian economy and institutions, arguing he can do more on those fronts than his predecessors did. The Obama administration appears willing to pocket those ideas as a down payment for more sustained peace efforts later, assuming Netanyahu's government survives through the year.

Iran's nuclear program will be the other major issue on the table. Netanyahu has spoken of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program in almost apocalyptic terms, disputing milder U.S. assessments of Iran's progress. But he has also indicated a willingness to let Obama experiment with engagement as long as there is a firm deadline for ending diplomacy and moving toward more aggressive actions.

Obama is unlikely to agree to any such deadline, fearing it would hamstring diplomacy. But U.S. and European officials have privately said that if Iran fails to begin serious talks by September or October -- the period when the U.N. General Assembly meets -- the administration and its allies will shift direction and seek to impose tough sanctions on Iran. For Netanyahu, that may be good enough, especially if his aides can leak to the media that Obama had that type of timetable in mind, Lewis said.

Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company