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Belmont Club

Alphonse, meet Gaston

May 19th, 2009 - 2:27 am

The Telegraph reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood firm against Barack Obama’s effort to persuade him to utter the words “two state” solution and commit to stop building settlements on the West Bank. The Telegraph wrote that “Mr Obama was unable to secure any commitments on ceasing the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or embracing the ‘two-state solution’ to achieving peace in the Middle East.”

There was a conspicuous lack of praise for his 59-year-old Israeli visitor, whom he said had the “benefit of having served” previously as prime minister and for having “both youth and wisdom”.

The meeting overran to two hours, suggesting that the two sides had struggled to find a way of presenting a unified face to the watching world.

Though Mr Netanyahu made clear he wanted to hold peace talks with the Palestinians, he refused to utter the words “two-state solution”, the consensus approach towards peace agreed by previous Israeli governments and US administrations.

But it might be more accurate to say that Netanyahu didn’t so much “stand firm” as much as to try and pull Obama into the same boat. In the language of diplomacy, Netanyahu came with a bagful of linkages. The Israeli Prime Minister didn’t say “no” to President Obama but “yes, if”. He was too wily to merely dig in his heels and appear intransigent, which would have made him an easy political punching bag for President Obama. Instead Netanyahu welcomed the prospect of going down the “road to peace” provided President Obama could ensure that Hamas would not turn the adjoining territories into a “terror base next door” and further provided Obama could guarantee that Iran would not represent an existential threat. To Obama’s proposition ‘will you not negotiate for a Palestinian state?’ the reply was, ‘but of course, monsieur, provided you make sure that he does not turn out to be a homicidal maniac funded from Teheran’. They were like two men approaching a door, each insisting that the other go first.

Caroline Glick’s latest article in the Jerusalem Post suggests what at least some Israeli quarters were worried about. In plain words, certain Israeli sources suggest Obama has “made its peace with Iran’s nuclear aspirations”, and wanted Israel to get with the program.

Panetta was reportedly dispatched here to read the government the riot act. Israel, he reportedly told his interlocutors, must not attack Iran without first receiving permission from Washington. Moreover, Israel should keep its mouth shut about attacking Iran. As far as Washington is concerned, Iran’s latest threats to destroy Israel were nothing more than payback for statements by Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials regarding Israel’s refusal to countenance a nuclear armed Iran.

Over the past several weeks, we have learned that the administration has made its peace with Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Senior administration officials acknowledge as much in off-record briefings. It is true, they say, that Iran may exploit its future talks with the US to run down the clock before they test a nuclear weapon. But, they add, if that happens, the US will simply have to live with a nuclear-armed mullocracy.

Whatever Netanyahu’s own beliefs, publicly he was going to play the reluctant peace-maker. The Christian Science Monitor described the negotiating strategies of each side. “Clearly what Netanyahu wants to know is: What will the US do if diplomacy with Iran fails? And what Obama wants to know is, where is Netanyahu going on the Palestinian issue?” says David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ‘Each thinks the other is not committed to his priority, but each wants to know that the other at some point can say, ‘ ‘Yes I can.’ ”’”

Mr Obama is expected to announce his own revamped version of the “road map” next month, after he has met Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president.

“The terminology will take care of itself,” said Mr Netanyahu. “The important thing is to resume negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible. The issue is less one of terminology than of substance.”

He said that if a peace deal delivered a “terror base next door” to Israel than it would be worthless, and insisted that Hamas, the militant group that controlled Gaza, had to recognise Israel before he was ready to make concessions.

The prime minister dwelt at length on the threat posed to Israel by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

His goal is to persuade the Americans that Tehran must be reined in before peacemaking with the Palestinians can progress.

The ball is for the moment, back in Obama’s court. The Telegraph report suggests that President Obama will attempt to persuade Egypt to put a lid on Gaza, thereby fulfilling one of Netanyahu’s demands. Whether Obama will get far enough with Egypt or Iran to satisfy Netanyahu remains to be seen. Each has made his actions contingent on the progress of the other. Is it an Alphonse and Gaston case of “you first” or is it a Shane situation of “prove it”? Maybe it’s both, as the video below shows, where a metaphorical Hamas, or perhaps an Iran, makes a belated entry into the scene.

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