Obama's Ideas On Israel Face Tough Reception

May 20, 2011

It's bound to be a tense meeting. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama at the White House Friday, just hours after rejecting the central tenet of Obama's latest peace plan proposal.

In his speech about Middle East issues Thursday, Obama reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, suggesting that Israel revert to the territory it held prior to its gains in the Six-Day War of 1967, while allowing for swaps of land between the two future states.

Just before boarding his plane to Washington, Netanyahu released a statement saying that Obama's proposal would leave his country vulnerable. He implicitly threatened to block Obama's ideas by calling on Israel's many friends in Congress.

Obama has been criticized domestically before after trying to pressure Netanyahu. Although Obama's idea builds on stated U.S. policy, negative reaction was immediate.

"President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, an all-but-declared presidential candidate, said in a statement.

It's likely to be just the beginning of months of difficult negotiations and angry politics leading up to an expected United Nations vote in September regarding the prospect of Palestinian statehood.

"I think Obama will be cordial and polite, but there will be an absence of warmth here," says Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Caught Off Guard By Events

Obama's plan was an attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have been moribund for months. His Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, resigned last week.

Netanyahu's visit to Washington comes at what was already a difficult moment for Israel. In the coming days, he will speak to a joint session of Congress. He also addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an influential pro-Israel advocacy group. Obama will speak to AIPAC as well.

Israel has been caught off guard by the events of the Arab Spring, particularly the downfall of its longtime ally in Egypt, ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Now protests demanding self-determination have come to Israel.

"Israel today, because of events in its own neighborhood and developments at home, has been forced into a very passive posture to maintain the status quo," says Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "What's happening in the Arab world is hard for Israelis to get their hands around."

Further Difficulties At Home

On Sunday, Palestinians staged mass protests in honor of Nakba, or "catastrophe," their term for Israeli independence day. Palestinians demonstrated in the territories and in neighboring countries, breaching the border between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israeli security forces shot at Palestinians in various locations, killing 16 and injuring scores more.

Fatah, the political party that controls the West Bank, recently reached an accord with Hamas, which governs Gaza, with the two sides working to create a unity government. The U.S., Israel and several other nations classify Hamas, which condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden, as a terrorist organization.

All of this seems to have hardened the Israeli government's position.

"Some of the developments that have taken place in the last few weeks have only enhanced Bibi's position, vis a vis the Palestinians," says Danin, a former State Department official who has been involved in peace process negotiations, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. "All these support the narrative that Israel is under siege, and how can we make compromises with these people."

The Palestinian Position

After Obama's speech, which appeared to reject the idea of a U.N. vote recognizing Palestine as a state, Palestinian officials vowed to press on with their effort.

"We cannot wait indefinitely while Israel continues to send more settlers to the occupied West Bank and denies Palestinians access to most of our land and holy places, particularly in Jerusalem," Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, wrote in The New York Times on Sunday. "Neither political pressure nor promises of rewards by the United States have stopped Israel's settlement program."

As Obama spoke Thursday, Israelis approved construction of 1,500 new homes in disputed quarters of Jerusalem.

Danin suggests that Palestinians will proceed with the political plans, both in terms of setting up a unity government that includes Hamas and pushing for a statehood vote, because there are no "opportunity costs" involved in doing so. By which he means, they don't expect to get anywhere with the Netanyahu government at the negotiating table at this point.

"It's clear to us that he is not interested in negotiating," says Diana Buttu, a former legal and communications adviser to the Palestinian Authority, who is now a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

More Protests To Come

Buttu suggests that if Israel is unwilling to make any serious concessions, Palestinians will continue to press their grievances, appealing to the court of world opinion.

"I don't think the Arab Spring is going to stop at the borders of Egypt or Syria or Libya," she says. "It's going to go beyond that. This is an eventuality that the Israelis have to be prepared for."

Palestinians have shown themselves in the past to be fully capable of launching a sustained set of protests. The prospect of a third intifada has led some U.S. and Israeli officials to argue that Israel will have to get serious about negotiations or offer the Palestinian something of substance — or risk increasing international isolation.

Any Way Out?

Obama's plan has some potential to break the logjam, suggests Yoram Peri, a former political adviser to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peri is now the director of the Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.

Obama's approach is "interesting and new," Peri says, because it would divide negotiations into two stages. First, questions surrounding borders and recognition and secondly, the even more intractable problems of the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

"The new approach is balanced," Peri says. "Palestinians have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Israel has to accept the 1967 lines as the baseline for the future borders."

Peri believes Obama would bring the same balanced approach to the second, more difficult stage of negotiations. But that doesn't mean he'd be likely to meet with success.

"My assessment: Neither party will accept the new proposal," he says. "The march to the U.N. in September continues." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.