By Jackson Diehl
Monday, May 18, 2009
Today Barack Obama will begin a diplomatic relationship that is likely to be as complex, as vexing and possibly as troubled as any he will have during the first years of his presidency. His meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu won't produce the blow-up some expect; a smooth veneer of harmony is more likely. Yet it will quietly inaugurate a contest of wills between two very different politicians -- one that could help determine whether the Middle East shifts toward an era of negotiation and detente, or of deepening conflict.
Obama's strategy aims at the former. He hopes to draw Iran into negotiations over its nuclear program while defusing the polarization between an Iranian-led bloc, including Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Israeli-Arab peace talks are central to this vision. By moving toward a settlement with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, Israel could coax some of Tehran's allies to switch sides and isolate hard-core extremists.
Netanyahu, in contrast, sees Iran as a latter-day Nazi Germany with which negotiation is foolish and compromise unthinkable. He campaigned on promises to destroy the Hamas movement in Gaza and to reject the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. He also refuses to publicly accept the goal of a Palestinian state -- a stance he has not changed despite public proddings from Washington.
Today that divide can be papered over. Netanyahu could promise to explore negotiations with both Palestinians and Arabs, while Obama sidesteps Netanyahu's silence on Palestinian statehood; Israel could acquiesce in U.S. attempts at outreach to Tehran with the understanding that a campaign for tough new sanctions will begin if there are no results by the fall. But these facts will remain: For Obama, Netanyahu will be an obstacle rather than an ally in any push for Middle East peace; for Netanyahu, Obama stands in the way of the forceful action he believes is urgently necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
That includes military force. Contrary to what it would like Iran and the rest of the world to believe, Israel would not attack Tehran's nuclear facilities without U.S. consent. Militarily, it would be next to impossible; politically, it would be suicidal to flout the United States on a matter of such strategic importance. If there is armed action against Iran during the next several years, it will be because Netanyahu somehow persuades or compels Obama to overrule the prevailing judgment of the U.S. government, which is that an attack is not a viable option.
Similarly, there will be no significant progress toward Middle East peace if Obama cannot move Netanyahu off some of his most cherished precepts -- not so much the idea that Palestinians will accept something short of full statehood but that a settlement can be postponed indefinitely even as Israel blockades Hamas in Gaza and expands Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Some will advise the administration that there is nothing to gain in pushing the Israeli leader as long as the Palestinians themselves remain divided and unwilling to accept even reasonable offers -- as they have been for several years. But the appearance that the United States is accepting of Israeli intransigence could turn opinion against Obama across the region.
Sometime in the next few months, one of these men may give way. Obama could come to accept that frontal confrontation is the only option for Iran and that Middle East peace talks must take a back seat to it; Iranian behavior could well make such a conclusion inescapable. Or Netanyahu could abandon his campaign pledges and offer the Golan Heights to Syria. Perhaps an incipient initiative to broaden the Middle East peace process so that Israel bargains across the board with Palestinians and Arab states over a comprehensive settlement will take on momentum, with help from Jordan's King Abdullah.
An equally likely scenario, however, is that Obama and Netanyahu will simply thwart each other -- to the delight of their common enemies. The resulting friction would be more dangerous for Netanyahu, who learned a decade ago that an Israeli prime minister who falls out with Washington cannot easily survive in office. If he is to succeed in the Middle East, Obama may need to use that leverage. He can start now by reaffirming U.S. support for Israel -- while leaving room for distinction between the country and its prime minister.