The meeting was bound to succeed. In the run-up to mid-term elections, President Obama needed to calm Jewish voters offended by his previous backhanded treatment of America’s Israeli ally. Prime Minister Netanyahu needed to reassure his public that he could right the ship of state after the bungled flotilla interception highlighted Israel’s isolation. But beyond the “confounding of cynics” trumpeted by Bibi in Tuesday’s remarkable Oval Office press availability may lie a more subtle development: a mood shift among Israelis and Palestinians that may signal an opportunity for serious movement toward peace. That was the conclusion I reached after visiting Ramallah and Israel last week.
On the Palestinian side, the flotilla crisis seems to have bolstered the sense among the West Bank leadership that it is time to try to strike the deal with Israel. Abu Mazen, buoyed by his own meetings at the White House and with American Jewish leaders, appears to be ready to move into direct peace negotiations with Netanyahu. He intends to continue a campaign of public diplomacy designed to convince Israelis and their American Jewish supporters that they have a Palestinian partner for peacemaking. He is even ready to address the Knesset.
This newfound peace activism is not so much because the Palestinian president believes the Likud PM has had a change of heart as it is confidence that the American president is in the Palestinian corner when it comes to establishing a viable state. He is now flexible about the necessary fig leaf to make direct negotiations possible: a credible explanation he can give to his people and the Arab League, which mandated his participation in the current “proximity talks.” If Netanyahu were willing to permit Palestinian police to resume control of “B Area” villages (where the Israel Defense Forces retain overall security control), and declare that there would no longer be IDF incursions into “A Area” cities (where the Palestinian Security Forces are supposed to have full responsibility), that would probably do it.
Meanwhile, the West Bank economy continues to grow, fueling a Palestinian desire for normal life after a decade of Intifada-inspired suffering. There is no appetite for a return to violence among West Bank Palestinians—a sentiment that appears to be shared by their counterparts in Gaza, where the easing of Israel’s siege holds hope for a new beginning.
In Israel, the public mood is in flux. While Netanyahu was meeting with Obama, 20,000 Israeli citizens were preparing to march on his Jerusalem residence to demand that he negotiate the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit with Hamas. The price they are willing to pay is steep: the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including 425 Hamas terrorists—some responsible for the worst attacks on Israeli civilians. But after four years, Israelis just want their government to get on with it.
The Israeli public also knows the price for peace with the Palestinians: the relinquishing of all the West Bank, save the main settlement blocs; shared sovereignty in east Jerusalem; and a deal on Palestinian refugees that denies them the ability to return to Israel. Until now, Israelis have been unwilling to press their leaders to make that deal. They felt there was “no partner” on the Palestinian side, so there was no point. But that was before the advent of an American president who defined the U.S. national interest as requiring a settlement of the Palestinian problem. And that was before their government botched the flotilla interception, triggering a wave of international condemnation.
Suddenly, Israelis feel alone in the world and fear for their future. They have always lived with a sense of existential dread, but in recent years, as the Intifada waned and the Israeli economy rebounded from the global recession—beaten only by China—Israelis began to enjoy their newfound prosperity and calm. This growing sense of security has now been punctured, driving them at first into a collective crouch, and an instinctive rallying behind their embattled prime minister.
But now the Israeli public is becoming impatient. They sense that their ship of state is no longer on an even keel. In recent times both the Mossad and the IDF have managed to cock up straightforward operations, doing great harm to Israel’s strategic relations with Turkey and its reputation in the Arab world. If Israel faced such international condemnation from intercepting a flotilla, how will it fare if it attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, or bombs Lebanese infrastructure in retaliation for Hezbollah rocket attacks? Israelis are now contemplating these questions and wondering whether dependence on deterrence and force alone is enough to secure their future. Perhaps their prime minister needs to take the diplomatic initiative? Slipping in the polls, under pressure from his more moderate coalition partners, and needing to avoid a new crisis with Obama when the settlement moratorium expires in September, Netanyahu finally seems willing to move.
That is the background for what Netanyahu told Obama in their long private meeting Tuesday, prompting the president to declare publicly that the prime minister is ready to take “risks for peace.” The coming months will determine whether Obama’s newfound confidence in the sincerity of his Israeli partner in peacemaking is justified. But with their Palestinian counterpart and the Israeli public now ready, the time had come for Obama to suspend disbelief, put his arm around Netanyahu, and nudge him forward. Obama’s next stop? Jerusalem and Ramallah.