President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek to move beyond the nasty public clash over the Iran nuclear deal and restore a more transactional approach to the U.S.-Israeli relationship — including delicate conversations about possible expansion of military aid — when they meet in Washington on Monday.
Though they have sharply differing views on how to handle the current geopolitics of the Middle East and a history of sour relations, Obama and Netanyahu both are looking to set a course for the last year of the Obama presidency, which will also represent another critical period for Israeli security.
The leaders plan to discuss how to counter Iranian aid to Hezbollah and Hamas; the Russian and Iranian efforts to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and steps that might demonstrate Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution even in the absence of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
The most tangible piece of the agenda, however, is a 10-year memorandum of understanding on military cooperation between the two countries that would budget aid and lock in a plan for new weaponry to deal with what the administration agrees is a “dangerous neighborhood.”
The two leaders are being propelled by different forces. By reaffirming support for Israel’s security, Obama is seeking to reassure Democrats who reluctantly backed the Iran deal despite their strong support for Israel and misgivings about the nature of the Iranian regime.
By appealing to American Jews for unity, delivering speeches at a conservative and a liberal think tank, and by drawing closer to Obama, Netanyahu will seek to repair relations with American Jews and solidify his political standing at home as the wave of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians has put Israel, once again, on edge.
“There’s a kind of capstone quality to this for both of them,” said Dennis Ross, a Mideast peace negotiator for three presidents and author of the newly released “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama.” He said, “Both the president and the prime minister have an interest in this meeting, at a minimum, to appear to go well.”
On the American side, there is a sense of limited ambition that contrasts sharply with the hopes Obama outlined six years ago in a speech in Cairo, where he spelled out ways in which Israelis and Palestinians could move beyond mutual blame and take steps toward peace.
Israel, he said then, should “live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society.” He added: “Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security. . . . Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.”
Many Mideast experts say that Obama was naive about both Israeli and Palestinian willingness to take those steps and about his own ability to bridge long-standing and deeply felt animosities.
But Obama no longer harbors hope for a peace agreement or even renewed talks during his presidency, the result of a “major reassessment,” administration officials said in a conference call with journalists Thursday. Instead, he is searching for ways to keep alive the idea of a two-state solution when much of Netanyahu’s cabinet opposes it and when continued settlement expansion threatens to make it unworkable.
“Clearly, part of our assessment has been that we don’t see a clear pathway right now to the type of negotiations that could produce a two-state solution, as much as we would like that to be the case,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser.
Obama will be asking Netanyahu to lay out steps, even though Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly declared that his people would no longer be bound by the Oslo Peace Accords. Netanyahu has also accused Abbas of inciting recent unrest.
“There will not be a comprehensive final status agreement in the remainder of his term, and there likely may not even be meaningful negotiations between the two sides,” said Robert Malley, Mideast coordinator at the National Security Council. “Given that reality, which is a new one, how does the prime minister himself see Israel going forward, given its own interests in stabilizing the situation in preventing the emergence of a one-state solution?”
Palestinian officials must also act so that each party can “convince the other side that they’re committed to a two-state solution,” Malley said.
Rhodes said: “There are practical things that can be done on the ground to build back some degree of trust and cooperation between the two sides. Clearly, part of that also involves rejecting violence and rejecting incitement. And we’ve called upon the Palestinian leadership to do so.”
Netanyahu comes to Washington seeking to build on the already broad and deep security relationship, hopeful that Obama will want to demonstrate his commitment to Israel after the Iran deal. Recently, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Israel and met with Netanyahu, and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited Washington.
The current memorandum of understanding on military aid doesn’t run out until fiscal year 2018, but Netanyahu wants to lock in some key elements for the next decade. Those include improved missile defense, smaller-diameter bombs that could be dropped on targets while minimizing civilian casualties, and F-35 fighter planes, which are stealthier than those Israel has, says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and former professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University.
“The United States will not sell Israel anything it wants,” Thompson said. “The United States is always trying to balance Israel’s security with the security of its neighbors, so there is some constraint in what gets sold.”
The talks on security take place in the shadow of anxiety in Congress over the Iran deal and whether to impose new sanctions for its conduct outside of the nuclear accord. The administration realizes new sanctions could undercut the nuclear accord if Iran thinks it will gain nothing from the deal.
Netanyahu and Obama will probably talk about sanctions as well as other ways — including interdiction — to respond to Iranian aid to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. On Friday, the Treasury Department announced sanctions on two individuals and four companies it said were buying military technology, including electronics, engines, communications and unmanned aerial vehicles, for Hezbollah.
Sources close to both governments say that the Obama administration will urge Netanyahu to restrain from stirring up Congress. But Josh Block, head of the Israel Project, said that “Iran’s terrible behavior — kidnapping Americans, helping Assad, shooting ballistic missiles — creates its own impetus for Congress to act against Iran. It doesn’t require any outside encouragement.”
Netanyahu will also be seeking to patch up relations with Democrats and American Jews who might have been put off by his trip on the eve of the Iran deal, during which he and Republican lawmakers arranged for him to address Congress and denounce the negotiating efforts.
“He understands that the relationship needs to be repaired,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a critic of the Iran deal who was among Jewish leaders who met with Obama this year.
But patching things up could run into unexpected obstacles. Last week, Netanyahu’s newly named diplomatic spokesman, Ran Baratz, called Obama anti-Semitic and disparaged Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s intelligence. Netanyahu apologized.
The Israeli Embassy has arranged for Netanyahu to speak Monday evening to the conservative American Enterprise Institute then on Tuesday to the liberal Center for American Progress. He will also address the Jewish Federations of North America, a broad umbrella group.
“I think he’s going to talk about the importance for the Jewish community and diaspora to be unified, not to have unanimity,” said Jerry Silverman, chief executive of the Jewish Federations of North America. Silverman met with Netanyahu twice in recent weeks.
But many Jewish Americans remain deeply alienated from Netanyahu and other members of his cabinet. Some even tried to get the Center for American Progress to refuse to host Netanyahu, but it has stood its ground, noting that it has hosted other public figures with different viewpoints.
Like Obama, the center will try to engage Netanyahu without rancor yet without illusions.
“I think they do actually have different world views,” Ross said of Obama and Netanyahu. “But they do recognize the points of convergence, they do recognize the common needs right now, and I think both have an interest in elevating those at this point.”