The meeting set for Sept. 21 in New York between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be a face-to-face one. Each man will be turned outward to his own domestic audience. Obama’s every move, every word and facial expression are being watched. Any inconsistency that emerges from the meeting with the prime minister will be used by Republican candidate Donald Trump to raise a cacophony of slander against “enemies of Israel” in the White House that includes the president’s colleague and candidate, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Even worse for Clinton’s campaign, the man who made "Fighting Terrorism" his middle name (and the title of a book he authored) will land in New York the day after it was revealed that the explosion in the city was a terror attack. How could one hurt the American people’s best partner in the fight against the bad guys? Only a week ago they marked 15 years to the terrible massacre perpetrated by al-Qaeda at the Twin Towers. On Oct. 1, Israel will mark a year from the start of the current uprising, when Heitam and Naama Henkins were murdered in the first of a new series of stabbing attacks.
Netanyahu’s face will also be turned toward home, to the Likud Party, most of whose members signed a letter in support of a bill that would prevent homes from being demolished in the controversial West Bank outpost of Amona. His gaze is also turned toward HaBayit HaYehudi, whose leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, are threatening to advance a law (nicknamed the "law of resolution") that would prevent the evacuation. That bill not only bypasses the High Court, the attorney general and the state prosecutor and violates President George Bush’s Roadmap for Peace and Israel’s written commitment to the United States on a settlement construction freeze, but is also an instrument for the theft of private Palestinian lands. It is a law that disregards the entire enlightened world — the world that Netanyahu accused a week ago of wanting the ethnic cleansing of Jews in the West Bank.
Netanyahu excels at using pressures at home to ward off pressure from abroad. Obama’s interest in blocking Trump aligns with Netanyahu’s interest in blocking Bennett. The prime minister’s problem is that the expiration date of this shared interest is Nov. 8. From that day on, they are expected to set out on a collision course. Netanyahu’s highest interest has been and remains to maintain the status quo and to be written into Israel’s history as the leader who saved his people from a “second Holocaust,” the creation of a Palestinian state on the lands of Judea and Samaria. And Obama does not aspire to enter global history as a leader on whose watch the Palestinian state was ultimately buried under Israeli outposts.
Obama is not interested in making the last mark in his Middle East chapter be a fat check for defense aid to Israel — a grant that Netanyahu hastened to mark on the credit column in the ledger of his personal accomplishments. The American president quickly handed Netanyahu the note for repayment. While he acknowledged “our commitment to Israel’s long-term security,” he made his position clear: “The only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”
A senior American official who spoke with Al-Monitor last week said that the Obama administration expressed strong reservations at the opening of a Russian peace channel. Washington recognizes the Russian gesture as an attempt to block the French initiative and the move by the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state. To prove his seriousness about advancing the peace process, Netanyahu will have to provide details to the president regarding the new “regional opportunities,” he claims to so seek to realize.
Obama's ticket out of the political/diplomatic imbroglio lies in his statement, “We will also continue to press for a two-state solution.” Who will continue to press? It’s unlikely to be a president, whose agenda is devoted to the effort to keep the White House in the hands of the Democratic Party and to increase its power on Capitol Hill. Support for a Security Council decision to recognize Palestine at this time would at best be considered ugly, underhanded opportunism on the part of Democrats behind Clinton’s back. At worst, she could be accused of being part of an anti-Israel conspiracy. It’s easy to imagine how Trump would savor such an episode, and it’s hard to believe that Clinton committed to Obama to “continue to press for the two-state solution” and to jump into the sick bed of the “peace process.” We can assume that after her husband was once bitten, she’d be twice shy. (I don’t dare predict how Trump would act if the title “President of the United States” were added to his name.)
In late 1988, toward the end of his second term, former President Ronald Reagan faced a similar dilemma. On one hand, he could no longer watch the first intifada, which broke out in December 1987, from the sidelines. On the other, he did not want to hurt the modest support of the Jewish community and Jewish donors for Republican candidate George Bush. Reagan found a creative solution. He gave his blessing to the Jewish-American peace activists — Democrat Stanley Sheinbaum, the Republican lawyer Rita Hauser and Drora Kass, who then served as the director of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East — to make secret contact with late Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
In a speech he gave in 1989, Sheinbaum, who passed away at the ripe old age of 96 last week, related how Secretary of State James Baker and head of the National Security Council Colin Powell knew about the secret talks. After Bush was elected the 41st American president, he relayed a commitment to Arafat that his administration would start a dialogue with the PLO on condition that the organization lay down its arms and recognize UN Resolution 242 and Israel’s right to exist.
The man who opened the secret channel that led to this breakthrough was late Swedish Foreign Minister Sten Andersson. Starting in January 2017, it will be Sweden’s turn to act as president of the Security Council. Palestinian, American and Israeli peace activists hope that Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who is known as one of the Western diplomats most critical of the occupation of the territories, will go the way of Andersson. The big, and perhaps decisive, difference is that no leaders now exist of the stature and vision of Arafat and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who walked the new path mapped in Washington and built the difficult road from Stockholm to Oslo.