Netanyahu-Obama Meeting: Don’t Expect Confrontation

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

May 15, 2009

Martin Indyk joined Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss the first meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

BERNARD GWERTZMAN: The new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is due to have talks with President Obama in Washington on Monday. In advance, the Obama administration has made it known that it supports a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian, two-state solution and wants to have a direct dialogue with Iran. Netanyahu to this point has said he’s for peace, but has not been specific about a two-state solution. You are a veteran of these negotiations. What do you think will happen when Netanyahu and Obama meet?

MARTIN INDYK: First of all, the buildup to this meeting has been one of anticipation of a confrontation. President Obama has made clear that he’s committed to the two-state solution, and Netanyahu has avoided the magic words. This has led people to presume that they’re headed for a clash. I think that’s hightly unlikely, at least at this stage. Obama is not the confrontational type. He’s certainly ready to make his stand and lay out his positions, but he also understands very clearly that Netanyahu is a critical player when it comes to achieving the U.S. aspirations for a breakthrough in Middle East peace. Israel is at least 50 percent of that equation, and Obama will be much better off if he can enlist Netanyahu in the cause rather than drag him reluctantly to the table. Netanyahu has an intense interest in showing that he can handle the all-important relationship between the United States and Israel, particularly when there is such a popular [U.S.] president. Therefore, he will seek to indicate that there is no real daylight between him and the president.

GWERTZMAN: Can he do that politically?

MARTIN INDYK: Netanyahu’s constraint is a political one: the Likud party, which he leads, has become a rump right-wing party because those in the Likud party that support the two-state solution defected to Kadima–the centrist party–a few years ago when it was led by the popular Ariel Sharon. There are other parties in Netanyahu’s coalition which are to the right of Likud and are even more adamantly opposed to the two-state solution. Thus Netanyahu finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place, the rock being the [U.S.] president’s determination to achieve a two-state solution and the hard place being his political base [at home] which opposes it. What Netanyahu is trying to do is walk between the raindrops. When he was in Egypt to meet [President Hosni] Mubarak (Haaretz), he spoke about the need for a political horizon of peace for the Palestinians. In his address to the pro-Israeli lobby group, AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], by video conference, he talked about a three-level process of peacemaking: security, economic development for the West Bank, and a political process. He’s inching toward the Obama position but trying to avoid saying the magic words “two-state solution.” I think there’s a good chance that if he doesn’t actually say those words, he’ll find a formula that minimizes the differences between himself and the president in this meeting.

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