By Dan Froomkin
1:05 PM ET, 05/19/2009
Yesterday's public exchange of remarks between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered no indication of progress towards peace in the Middle East -- maybe even the opposite.
Israel's new, hawkish leader refused to even utter the phrase "two-state solution," demanded concessions from the Palestinians without expressing any interest whatsoever in making any of his own, and focused primarily on the Iranian nuclear threat.
Obama spoke vaguely of his confidence that progress could be made in the "days, weeks and months to come," and of potentially engaging Arab states and "realign[ing] interests in the region in a constructive way." But that was just empty words, right?
Yitzhak Benhorin writes for Ynet News that Netanyahu met with Israeli reporters after the meeting and reported that Obama told him "that he intends to promote a new regional peace initiative for the Middle East....[T]he prime minister said that his understanding the regional component will be the key focal point of the new initiative. It will likely be presented in Obama's planned June 4th speech in Cairo."
Hilary Leila Krieger and Herb Keinon write for the Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu "termed the plan 'interesting,' and said that it would involve not just the Palestinians and Israelis, but also a number of moderate Arab states."
This sounds like the initiative that Jordan's King Abdullah was talking about last week.
Richard Beeston and Michael Binyon wrote in the Times of London: "America is putting the final touches to a hugely ambitious peace plan for the Middle East, aimed at ending more than 60 years of conflict between Israel and the Arabs, according to Jordan's King Abdullah, who is helping to bring the parties together.
"The Obama Administration is pushing for a comprehensive peace agreement that would include settling Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and its territorial disputes with Syria and Lebanon, King Abdullah II told The Times. Failure to reach agreement at this critical juncture would draw the world into a new Middle East war next year. 'If we delay our peace negotiations, then there is going to be another conflict between Arabs or Muslims and Israel in the next 12-18 months,' the King said....
"The initiative could form the centrepiece for Mr Obama's much-anticipated address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4. A peace conference could then take place involving all the parties as early as July or August...
"'What we are talking about is not Israelis and Palestinians sitting at the table, but Israelis sitting with Palestinians, Israelis sitting with Syrians, Israelis sitting with Lebanese,' said the King, who hatched the plan with Mr Obama in Washington last month. He added that, if Mr Obama did not make good his promise for peace, then his credibility would evaporate overnight.
"The Israeli Government has so far rejected any moves that would lead to a two-state solution, the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, but the King insisted that what was being proposed was a '57-state solution', whereby the Arab and entire Muslim world would recognise the Jewish state as part of the deal."
AFP reports that Abdullah told a session of the World Economic Forum last week in Jordan: "The Arab peace initiative has offered Israel a place in the neighbourhood and more: acceptance by 57 nations, the one-third of the UN members that do not recognise Israel" -- in return for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are 57 countries in the Islamic Conference.
The Times predicted that details of the plan would likely to be thrashed out in a series of meetings -- starting with the one between Obama and Netanyahu.
The recognition by the Arab states could conceivably be a powerful incentive for Israel. Netanyahu told Ynet News, for instance, "that Israel shares Obama's view that as many Arab nations as possible should be included in the Palestinian process, 'so that they talk directly to Israel.'"
Reuters reported last week: "Among Arab states, only Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania have diplomatic relations with Israel. Most Muslim countries avoid political, economic ties and even diplomatic ties."
Jason Burke, Ewan MacCaskill and Rory McCarthy wrote in Sunday's Observer: "The real strength of Obama's strategy lies in the regional dimension. His team is following the dictum 'If you can't solve a problem, make it bigger'. Their aim is to dilute the knotty intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a broader environment, in the hope that regional powers such as Jordan and Egypt can offer Israel incentives that the weakened Palestinians cannot or will not give.
"By linking all the various elements of the complex matrix of conflicts and rivalries that comprise Middle Eastern politics, the White House hopes to get something, somewhere, to give.
"Some of those blocks might be clearing. Moderate Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt, as well as US allies like Saudi Arabia, are concerned both by the continuing threat of radical Islamic violence and by Iran's bid for regional primacy and may be prepared to make concessions themselves or press the Palestinians to do so."
There's also an Iranian angle. Tim McGirk writes for Time: "Obama wants to rally Arab nations to create a bloc against Iran's nuclear ambitions, and he thinks that the only way to bring the Arabs on board is to achieve headway on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict....
"He has his sights on a regional peace initiative, roping in moderate Arab states, which he will unveil on June 4 in Cairo. Obama knows that his plan will succeed or flop depending on Israel's willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians."
Next week, before his trip to Cairo, Obama is hosting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House.
As for Iran, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Obama said Monday that he expected to know by the end of the year whether Iran was making 'a good-faith effort to resolve differences' in talks aimed at ending its nuclear program, signaling to Israel as well as Iran that his willingness to engage in diplomacy over the issue has its limits.
"'We're not going to have talks forever,' Mr. Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel after a two-hour session in
the Oval Office....
"Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama came to the meeting with competing goals: Mr. Obama wanted Mr. Netanyahu to embrace a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and Mr. Netanyahu wanted Mr. Obama to take a strong stand on the threat to Israel's security posed by Iran. Some independent experts said afterward that Mr. Netanyahu appeared to have succeeded."
Aluf Benn writes for Haaretz: "Netanyahu said he hopes 'Obama will succeed' in his talks with Iran, but this is a diplomatic phrase. It is doubtful that he believes the Iranians will suddenly become nice and give up their nuclear program just because Obama talks with them.
"In practice, this means that Netanyahu agreed to give Obama until the end of the year. Then, if Iran's nuclear program is still proceeding, Israel will consider 'other options.'"
And in a related development, Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "A planned U.S. missile shield to protect Europe from a possible Iranian attack would be ineffective against the kinds of missiles Iran is likely to deploy, according to a joint analysis by top U.S. and Russian scientists. The U.S.-Russian team also judged that it would be more than five years before Iran is capable of building both a nuclear warhead and a missile capable of carrying it over long distances. And if Iran attempted such an attack, the experts say, it would ensure its own destruction."