Wednesday, 20 May 2009


Netanyahu can't bear to say 'two-state'

By Jim Lobe
Asia Times Online

WASHINGTON - While reaffirming the "special relationship"
between their two countries, United States President Barack
Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
appeared unable to bridge major differences in their
approaches to Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts
following their White House meeting here on Monday.

While Obama said he may be prepared to impose additional
sanctions against Iran early next year if diplomatic
efforts to persuade it to curb its nuclear program failed
to make progress, he refused to set what he called "an
arbitrary deadline". Israeli officials had pressed
Washington for an early October deadline.

And while Obama repeatedly stressed the importance of a
two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
Netanyahu never uttered the phrase or alluded to the possibility of a
Palestinian state during a 30-minute press appearance with
the US president after their meeting in the Oval Office.

"My view is less one of terminology than substance," he
said, adding a number of pre-conditions for any final

"If ... the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish
state, if they fight terror, they educate their children
for peace and for a better future, then I think we can come
to a substantive solution that allows the two peoples to
live side by side in security and peace," he said,
stressing that he was nonetheless eager "to resume
negotiations [with the Palestinians] as rapidly as possible
... "

Netanyahu also declined to respond to explicit calls by
Obama to both stop Israeli settlement activity in the
Occupied Territories and to address the humanitarian
situation in Gaza, which has been subject to strict
blockade by the Israeli authorities and Egypt that has
prevented any reconstruction of the territory devastated by
Israel's three-week military campaign in late December and

"Israel is going to have to take some difficult steps as
well. And I shared with the prime minister the fact that
under the 'road map', under Annapolis, there is a clear
understanding that we have to make progress on settlements;
that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move
forward," Obama said during the press appearance.

"The fact is that if the people of Gaza have no hope, if
they can't even get clean water at this point, if the
border closures are so tight that it is impossible for
reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then
that is not going to be a recipe for Israel's long-term
security or a constructive peace track to move forward," he
noted, adding that Washington intended to become a "strong
partner" in any peace process.

Monday's talks, which Obama called "extraordinarily
productive", were perhaps the most widely anticipated of
any he has held with a foreign leader since his
inauguration nearly four months ago. Unlike George W Bush,
Obama has repeatedly insisted he will make a two-state
solution a top priority of his foreign policy and that he
sees such a settlement as critical to the larger goal of
stabilizing the Greater Middle East, including Afghanistan
and Pakistan, and defeating al-Qaeda and like-minded

That view was already given voice last week by Jordan's
King Abdullah, the first regional leader to visit Obama at
the White House, and will no doubt be bolstered by the
visits here next week of the beleaguered Palestinian
Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has insisted that
Netanyahu commit himself to a two-state solution, and
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Obama's determination to conclude a two-state settlement,
however, clearly clashes with the agenda of Netanyahu's new
right-wing government, which is not only publicly opposed
to a two-state solution but whose top priority is to
prevent Iran "by military means, if necessary" from
obtaining nuclear weapons, a capability which, according to
some senior Israeli intelligence officials, it may acquire
as soon as the end of this year.

Indeed, Netanyahu and his allies among US neo-conservatives
and other elements of the so-called "Israel Lobby" here
have argued that Israel cannot be expected to advance the
peace process when it faces the "existential" threat posed
by a nuclear Iran, particularly given Tehran's support for
Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Until
that threat is addressed, they insist, little or no
progress can be achieved on the Palestinian front.

But Obama explicitly rejected that thesis on Monday. While
recognizing "Israel's legitimate concerns" about Iran's
nuclear ambitions, he said, "If there is a linkage between
Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I
personally believe it actually runs the other way."

"To the extent that we can make peace ... between the
Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it
strengthens our hand in the international community in
dealing with the potential Iranian threat," he said.

The appearance of the two leaders before reporters followed
a lengthy private meeting which reportedly lasted a full
hour longer than anticipated, an indication, according to
retired US ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis, that they
failed to agree to on key issues. In addition, the two
sides also failed to issue a joint statement summarizing
the talks, another indication of disagreement, according to

On Iran, Obama offered more details about US diplomatic
strategy than he had before. He suggested that Washington
was holding off on engaging Tehran in earnest until after
its elections next month.

After elections are completed, he said, "We are hopeful
that ... there is going to be a serious process of
engagement, first with the P5 Plus 1[the five permanent
members of the UN Security Council plus Germany] process,
which is already in place; potentially through additional
direct talks between the United States and Iran."

"We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year
as to whether they are moving in the right direction and
whether the parties involved are making progress and that
there's a good-faith effort to resolve differences," he
went on. "That doesn't mean every issue would be resolved
by that point," he stressed.

At the same time, he stressed that the dangers posed by
Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons was such that,
without imposing an "artificial deadline ... we're not
going to have talks forever. We're not going to create a
situation in which the talks become an excuse for inaction
while Iran proceeds with developing and deploying a nuclear

He suggested that Washington would proceed to seek
international support for tougher sanctions against Iran
but did not mention possible military action, as Netanyahu
no doubt had hoped.

"I assured the prime minister that we are not foreclosing a
range of steps, including much stronger international
sanctions, in assuring that Iran understand that we are
serious," Obama said.

In his own remarks, Netanyahu appeared to try to broaden
this formulation to include possible military action,
saying, "I very much appreciate, Mr President, your firm
commitment to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear
military capability, and also your statement that you're
leaving all options on the table."

Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read here
With additional reporting by Ali Gharib.

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