When President Barack Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House on Monday, their carefully chosen words failed to conceal basic disagreements.
The Israeli leader downplayed talks with the Palestinians and never uttered the phrase “two-state solution.” Instead, Netanyahu focused on the danger to Israel and to the United States of Iran’s developing nuclear weapons. He thanked Obama for “leaving all options on the table” — Bushian shorthand for keeping open the possibility of bombing Iran.
Yet Obama never used that phrase, although he did say his policy of seeking dialogue with Iran had time limits, after which he might seek stronger international sanctions. However, the president stated — contrary to Netanyahu — that progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace would strengthen America’s hand in dealing with Iran.
Obama also made clear that the United States believes a two-state solution is essential for stability in the region. He asked Israel to live up to its past commitment to halt Jewish settlements on the West Bank — a commitment Netanyahu never mentioned.
Listening to Obama’s oh-so-careful exchange with Netanyahu made me antsy. Here’s what he might have said had he been more frank:
“Prime Minister Netanyahu, the United States has a deep and special relationship with the state of Israel, whose security will always be of paramount concern.
“However, we believe the greatest current security threat to our country and the world emanates from the nexus of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where jihadi terrorists with global goals could get their hands on nuclear weapons.
“Unlike Iran, Pakistan already has dozens of weapons and is manufacturing more fissile materiel. Its leaders say those weapons are safe, but no one can be certain about the future. Al-Qaida and its allies would have no qualms about using or handing off nuclear materiel to kill millions in the West. They also hate Israel.
“So America must help Pakistan’s government combat the jihadis and safeguard its nuclear weapons. Toward that same end, the United States must also help stabilize Afghanistan, which is threatened by a Taliban resurgence.
“Until this goal is achieved, embarking on any other war in the region would be a serious strategic error.
“A military strike against Iran — including any solo action by Israel — wouldn’t end that country’s program. But it would likely destroy U.S. efforts to bring the AfPak situation under control. It would also inflame the entire Middle East. There are other ways to approach — and, if necessary, contain — Iran’s nuclear efforts.
“As for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, you mustn’t waste what may be the last, best chance for a negotiated solution.
“Virtually all of the Sunni Arab nations in the Middle East are worried about Iran’s growing power and are ready for a broader peace with Israel. I will ask their leaders for more concrete commitments when I visit the region in June.
“But a broad Arab peace with Israel — envisioned in the Arab peace plan of 2002 — won’t move forward unless Israel recommits to and pursues a two-state solution.
“You say you can’t restart talks because the Palestinian leadership is split between the radical Hamas and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank? Then give the Palestinians and the Arab world a clear signal of your bona fides by stopping all Jewish settlement-building on the West Bank, as you pledged to do in previous agreements.
“Such a move would provide breathing room for the peace process. It would give Arab countries the political cover with their own publics to make further overtures toward Israel. A settlement freeze could also turn Palestinian public opinion against Hamas. This virtuous circle would, in turn, expand the Israeli majority that, according to polls, already favors a two-state solution.
“On the other hand, if Israel keeps expanding settlements — and I understand a new one is going up as you stand here — this precludes any viable Palestinian state. Not only are the settlements killing prospects for a two-state solution; they are suicidal for the Jewish state. Israeli demographers point out that keeping control of the West Bank and Gaza will lead to an angry Arab majority within greater Israel within a couple of decades.
“That is why I urge you to seize this moment. Progress toward a two-state solution is crucial, for both your country and mine.”
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.