The love fest between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday made me recall the adage “All politics is local.”
Relations between Washington and Jerusalem had been testy in recent months. But on this visit, you’d never know it. With an eye on midterm congressional elections, Obama was warmth itself toward Netanyahu. And with an eye on his fractious coalition government, the Israeli leader was all compliments to his host.
But the pressures of local politics will probably prevent each man from doing what’s needed to prevent the final collapse of the peace process and the further destabilization of the Middle East.
Tensions had built between the two allies after Obama’s demand for a full freeze on Israel’s building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, as well as an Israeli snub of Vice President Biden in Jerusalem. Bibi was given a cool reception at his last White House visit, in March, and Obama has yet to visit the Jewish state.
Despite the president’s repeated pledge that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable, pro-Israel groups have insisted Obama is hostile to the Jewish state. Those groups include not just Jews, but also Christian evangelicals who are passionately pro-Israel. At a conference of evangelicals who packed the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia last month, I heard the audience whoop and cheer for a senior Israeli official while muttering about Obama’s sins.
Although Obama and Bibi made a public show of amity, domestic pressures will likely prevent them from doing what’s needed to make peace talks move.
On Monday, ultra-right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s coalition declared that a 10-month partial freeze on building Jewish housing in the West Bank (which Bibi finally agreed to after U.S. pressure) should not be extended past September.
Obama had (rightly) pushed for a freeze because settlement-building makes the prospect of a Palestinian state less and less likely. As Jewish settlements expand across the West Bank, they divide an already small territory into unviable parcels.
Palestinians are wary of upgrading from indirect to direct talks with Israel while new settlements are changing the landscape. They have reason to be. When the Oslo peace talks began, the West Bank had around 110,000 Jewish settlers; now there are around 300,000, according to Akiva Eldar, the Israeli author of a history of the settlements, Lords of the Land.
Given his own domestic political concerns, Obama now seems reluctant to publicly press Netanyahu on settlements. And Netanyahu may be unwilling to take on the potent settler lobby, which has strong support within his government.
Yet if, as he claims, Bibi doesn’t want to rule over the Palestinians, he should be wary of permitting highly ideological settlers to expand construction in the West Bank. The more the settlers build and the larger their numbers, the harder it will be to evict them. Already, they’ve threatened to fight Israeli soldiers with force. Down that road lies civil war.
Obama hopes to persuade the Palestinians to restart direct peace talks before the settlement freeze expires, in hopes this will help Bibi extend it. We’ll see.
Even if talks restart, the chances for progress are slim. The Palestinian leadership is split between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Netanyahu is primarily focused on Iran and openly skeptical about the peace process.
He insists Israel will never withdraw from the Jordan Valley or agree to the division of Jerusalem into two capitals. These limits would truncate the tiny West Bank. Netanyahu’s predecessor, the conservative Ehud Olmert, was reportedly willing to offer 98.1 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, and no Palestinian leader will settle for less.
Were Obama less constricted by domestic pressures, he might put forward his own proposal for two states, along with serious U.S. and NATO security guarantees for Israel.
Were Netanyahu less constrained by his far right flank (or more willing to move toward the center), he’d be looking for a way to leave the field open for talks. He wouldn’t be precluding a future Palestinian state by building more “facts on the ground.”
So White House bonhomie is nice, but a reality check is needed. Watch to see whether Israeli bulldozers and cranes resume business across the West Bank come October. All the warm words in the White House will do little for the peace process if Barack and Bibi can’t agree on a renewed settlement freeze.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org