Randy's Corner Deli Library

18 May 2009

Obama vs Netanyahu: The confrontation that wasn't

The meeting between Israeli Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, which was supposed to be a major event of diplomatic pugilism, has ended in a gentleman's draw. Media hype-ists were selling ringside seats to the fight of the decade: "Chicago Killer vs IDF Commando." The Obama - Netanyahu meet was billed as a critical championship bout in which fans would see blood. Netanyahu would ask for immediate action on Iran, Obama would insist on immediate Israeli concessions and backing for a two-state solution. 

Instead, what the spectators got to see was at most a velvet gloves sparring match, in which both leaders emphasized points of agreement and studiously avoided confrontation. We don't really know everything that went on in the closed doors meeting, but the impression left by the news conference following what was to be a supposedly historic face-off was somewhat of a Rashomon or projective test, which allowed everyone to come away with the message they wanted to hear or expected to hear. At worst, it was a 15 round sparring contest, in which Obama, who has both the advantage of being President of the United States as well as enormous charisma, won on points. There was no knockout. Publicly, there were no surprises. 

Arabs were happy that President Obama mentioned the two state solution and the settlement issues. They were less than happy, as were Israelis, at the lack of strong commitments regarding the problem of Iran. Israelis and Arabs are no doubt be happy that Obama said that the "soft" approach to Iran would be reassessed "probably" at the end of the year. Iranians are no doubt happy that nobody mentioned military options even by allusion, and that Obama said there is no deadline. Israelis are also happy that Obama mentioned security problems in Gaza. Supporters of the peace process and of American-Israeli unity will be happy that both sides agreed that the Iranian threat presents a major opportunity to forge unity between Israel and its Arab neighbors and to advance the peace process. Everyone is bound to notice that there were no definite pronouncements on action items for any of the pressing issues. Did the two agree to disagree? Did they conclude different things behind closed doors? 

Israel TV Channel 1 commentators were quick to announce that the press conference showed the deep divisions between the sides, but it was hard to get that impression from watching the press conference itself. Jewish Telegraphic Agency headlined, correctly, Obama: Won’t talk forever on Iranand gave the heart of the Obama and Netanyahu messages:

Obama reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution, while Netayahu resolutely refused to commit to Palestinian statehood. Instead, Netanyanu again said Israel was serious about resuming the full range of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Obama said that both sides must abide by previous commitments, calling on the Palestinians to rein in violence against Israel, but also urging Netanyahu to stop settlement expansion and allow humanitarian goods into the Gaza Strip.

The Jerusalem Post headlined, equally correctly, Obama: No deadline on talks to stop Iran nuclear program. Obama said both, as well as saying there would "probably" be a reassessment at the end of the year. Obama called the meeting "extraordinarily productive," while Netanyahu said the talks were "very constructive." Nobody is saying what was produced or constructed. If either of them have a plan, it was not in evidence. If the United States and Israel had concluded any new agreements, the press conference was the time to announce them. What was not said, the lack of decisive statements about the entire range of pressing issues. was in fact the most important news. 

To all appearances, the mountain produced a mouse, as we say in Hebrew. It is hard to believe that the trite and vague slogans that were delivered in the news conference constituted the substance of the proceedings. There is, at least, a great desire to avoid confrontation on both sides, and that is very wise. Israel cannot afford a public flap with its major ally. The United States can't admit publicly that its major protege in the Middle East is out of control. Both sides are waiting to see what the Arab leaders will say, and what Iran will say. Very likely, Mr. Obama will find that the Arab leaders are waiting to see what Israelwill say. We can be pretty sure of what Iran will say, despite the optimism of Mr. Obama. Therefore, essentially, the United States policy on Iran is to postpone any action until at least the end of the year, while it tries to build a coalition. 

If Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu had any good news for each other, they aren't telling us. There was no break and no breakthrough. Had there been a real break between the sides, there would have been no news conference. Had there been a real breakthrough, there would have been a joint communication. If they had any bad news, the messages may well be delivered through aides and backchannels, and through hints and nuances. We will only know if the lack of noise indicates important progress, hopeless stagnation or the quiet before the storm as the drama unfolds. 

Journalists have to make a living however, and bloggers have to get excited about something. Nobody likes to be boring, so they must extract juicy headlines and extreme conclusions from this meeting, whatever the reality. We can be sure of the usual quota of headlines about the great split between the United States and Israel, the upcoming confrontation, the imminent Israeli attack on Iran etc. Some of them might be true, but we don't have a real way of knowing. 

One blogger delivered these verdicts and prognostications, ahead of the meeting:

There's a new game shaping up in the Middle East, and the pieces are moving with astounding speed.

It's not an exaggeration to characterize the Obama administration as the most anti-Israel in American history.

On the contrary, at what was supposed to be a decisive meeting, Obama gave every evidence that he is moving with almost glacial slowness and deliberation on every issue. It is certainly absurd to characterize the Obama Administration as anti-Israel at this point, and unfounded to to characterize it as the most anti-Israel in American history. Unlike the Eisenhower administration, the Obama administration has not forced Israel to withdraw from any territories without a quid pro quo. Unlike the Ford administration, there is no talk of "reassessment." Unlike the administration of the first George Bush, there is as yet no talk of financial pressure and, at least not that anyone knows, there are no senior administration officials saying, "F--- the Jews, they didn't vote for us," if only because the F---ing Jews, as everyone knows, did vote overwhelmingly for this administration. The Obama administration objects to settlements, but so did every single previous American administration since 1973. The Obama administration is not eager to let Israel attack Iran, but it is no more obstructive than the Johnson administration was prior to the Six Day War

What we saw are two very competent politicians at work, spinning unity of purpose and exuding good will. Nonetheless, it is clear that Obama is writing the script and will expect all others to follow. Obama's strategy is to write the script in such a way that everyone perceives that it is a win-win game to follow it, and a hopeless endeavor to resist. He thinks it is a new script, but it seems to be a remake of several movies we've seen with a much better actor in the lead. The other players who are part of the cast are all going to follow their usual plan, which is to make as much peaceful noise as possible without giving away anything of substance. That's what we saw in the Clinton administration and the Bush administration. The smartest players will try to make sure that it is the other fellows who look like obstructionists. Syria is not necessarily part of the cast. Iran,Hezbollah and Hamas are not part of the cast at all, and won't follow the script at all. In the best case, the Obama administration will find a way to exhibit a great success with the proper spin, and the participants will all look like they are riding off into the sunset in the last reel. 

In the worse case, it will be some time before the Obama administration has to deal with the reality that the happy ending with the photo-op planned for the last scene is not going to happen because the extras blew up the stage set and scared away the actors. Experience teaches that in the Middle East, it is usually wise to predict the worst case scenario. What happens then? Everything depends on who get blamed then, and what the United States will do about it. Until then, all bets are off. 

Ami Isseroff

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