The Coming Obama-Israeli Train Wreck

Next Monday’s Oval Office meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama will be a train wreck.  It may precipitate the biggest breach in the U.S.-Israeli relationship since the Jewish state was created over sixty years ago.  

This train wreck is almost inevitable because Obama and Netanyahu disagree about Mideast priorities and the way to attain important outcomes.  That clash will expose Obama’s willingness to compromise Israel’s security for his pro-Islamic Mideast agenda.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will offer Obama renewed talks with the Palestinian Authority, closer relations with moderate Arab states, and remind the president to make good on his campaign promise to “use all elements of American power” and do everything to “prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

The Israeli will insist Obama give the Iranian threat top priority because he — and most Israelis — believe Tehran poses an existential threat for the Jewish state as evidenced by the coincidence of Iran’s rapidly emerging atomic weapons threat and the regime’s heated anti-Israeli rhetoric.   

But Obama will promise Netanyahu nothing.  He will not volunteer a timeline for his diplomatic experiment with Tehran nor how America might respond when diplomacy inevitably fails.  However, he will assure the prime minister about his determination to engage Iran and repeat that diplomacy “is not the only option,” without explaining what that means.

Netanyahu believes Obama will trade Israeli security for some sort of Iranian cooperation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But as is apparent to all except the president, the belief that Iran would do anything significant to help the U.S. –whether or not Israeli interests are sacrificed – is entirely naïve.  Israeli and many Arab leaders agree that dragging out Obama’s diplomatic experiment buys Iran’s mullahs time to perfect their atomic program and further expand regional dominance. The Islamic Republic already has significant sway over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza.  Its terror proxy Hizballah is destabilizing Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia’s Shia-dominated eastern province, where its oil reserves are found.

Obama wants time to give diplomacy and economic incentives the opportunity to buy Tehran’s help on issues other than the nuclear front.  The president needs a new resupply route through Iran to Afghanistan because current routes pass through crisis-plagued Pakistan. He also needs Iranian help to stabilize the Iraqi Shia-dominated government to rein in Hizballah’s global threat.

The Israeli will outline his “triple track” Palestinian peace approach.  That formula stresses the importance of building up the Palestinian economy and institutions rather than focusing exclusively on negotiations aimed at reaching a political settlement.  But, he will warn, “Peace will not come without security, so I want to be very clear — we shall never compromise on Israel’s security.”

Obama will commit to “deeply engage” in the peace process, but he expects Israel to make major concessions to jump-start the peace talks.  Those pre-conditions were outlined by Vice President Joe Biden in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week. “Israel has to work toward a two-state solution. You’re not going to like my saying this, but do not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement,” Biden said.

The president believes resolving the Palestinian issue will create the right conditions for moderate Arab states to join an alliance against Iran. That view was expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-à-vis Iran, talks can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts.”

Netanyahu will choose his words carefully.  He might say, “We are prepared to resume peace negotiations without any delay and accept the two-state solution.”  But then he would add, “There are only two non-negotiable preconditions.” Israel must be recognized by the Palestinians as a Jewish state, and the proposed Palestinian state’s sovereignty must be limited to ensure Israel’s basic security needs.

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a new demand for Israel to make. Netanyahu will explain recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is strategically important because it removes the legal and moral basis for Palestinians to continue to attack Israel, and it ends Palestinian demands for the right of refugees to return to Israel.  This is critical for Israel because a flood of returning Arabs could dangerously alter the country’s demographics.

The second reservation, limiting Palestinian sovereignty, is a view previous American administrations embraced.  For Israel, limited sovereignty means the Palestinian state cannot have an army, conclude treaties hostile to Israel, or control air and electromagnetic space, but can monitor its borders for weapons.

But Obama will be anxious about Netanyahu’s reservations because he knows Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas rejects Israel’s “Jewish state” demand.  “A Jewish state, what is that supposed to mean?  You can call yourselves as you like, but I don’t accept it, and I say so publicly,” Abbas said.

Abbas has pre-conditions before he rejoins peace talks.  He expects Israel to completely stop planting new settlements and Netanyahu must commit to a Palestinian state “on the 1967 borders, not a centimeter more, not a centimeter less.”  Pulling back to the 1967 borders is a difficult pre-condition for Israel.

Netanyahu understands the Palestinians adopted the “territory for peace” formula long ago.  Even though he endorses the two-state view, he believes the “territory for peace” formula is a clever ruse. Giving up territory is irreversible, while Palestinian promises of peace depend on their questionable good will.

Netanyahu will caution Obama that the Palestinians are really unreliable peace partners because half their body politic has been taken over by the terror group Hamas. The other half has little capacity to enforce anything and doesn’t seem to be actively fighting against terrorism.  

The prime minister will turn the conversation back to Iran. He will insist Israel and the Arab world see Iran as a common danger, and he may cite a recent edition of the London-based Palestinian daily, Al-Quds Al-Arabia, which indicated the moderate Arab governments were actively working on building an alliance with Israel to counter Iranian influence in the region.  

The prime minister will then speak about political realities.  He might say, “Israelis have a favorable view of you, Mr. President, but 63 percent believe you are attempting to improve America’s reputation in the Arab-Islamic world at Israel’s expense.  Only 38 percent of Israelis believe you are ‘friendly’ to Israel.”  [The survey (PDF) of the Israeli public was conducted April 23-26, 2009.]

Then Netanyahu may voice his final appeal. “Let’s be frank, Mr. President.  There is no chance Tehran will volunteer to help the U.S. on issues like Iraq, a resupply route or reining-in Hizballah much less abandoning its atomic program.”  But the Israeli might shelve those words depending on Obama’s response.  After all, Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, warned the prime minister “Obama wants to make friends with our worst enemies… Under this policy we [Israel] are more than irrelevant.  We have become an obstacle.”

That report, which was leaked to the World Tribune, states “Obama will want to show Iran, Syria and radical Muslims that the United States could pressure Israel on a strategic level.” The intelligence officials estimated that Obama would restrict U.S. exports to Israel to limit its options against Iran.

Such an outcome will only ratchet up the likelihood of another Mideast military confrontation.  If the U.S. actually leaves Israel on its own, meaning that military essential resupply cannot be counted on, it increases the potential of Israeli use of its alleged nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu understands Obama is willing to sacrifice Israel for a pro-Arab-Islamic agenda, which explains why their May 18 meeting will end in a major breach between the two allies.