Benjamin Netanyahu is smiling. Barack Obama is smiling. Forgive me; I'm not smiling. Either the news photos from this week's White House meeting are hiding something, or the odds of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement have just dropped again.
The smiles were expected. The Israeli prime minister's Washington visit was billed in countless Israeli media reports as a sulha -- the Arabic and thus the vernacular Hebrew for a ceremonial reconciliation. For Obama, the most obvious goal was a short-term domestic political win. Four months before the U.S.' midterm elections, the president seems to have accepted the conventional wisdom that tension with Israel over settlements and peace negotiations alienates pro-Israel donors and voters from Democratic congressional candidates (as if all pro-Israel voters were pro-Netanyahu hawks).
Meeting with the press, both Obama and Netanyahu pointedly avoided answering questions about extending the Israeli freeze on settlement building, imposed last year under U.S. pressure and due to expire in late September. Obama spoke of the need for Israeli "confidence-building measures" toward the Palestinians. But he didn't mention Netanyahu's resistance to discussing final-status issues such as borders. Whatever went on in their private conversation, the public message is that Obama is no longer pressuring Netanyahu to make the policy changes needed for peace.
Yet that message was unnecessary, even domestically. Unless the show for the cameras hid off-camera progress on peace, the sulha is more dangerous than the feud. Downplaying the very real disagreements on peace was unneeded because the administration has a stronger case to make: The Obama administration has been more effective in providing support for Israel's fundamental security and diplomatic needs than the Bush administration was.
For example, in May, Israel was accepted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Membership in the elite policy-coordinating body is "an economic security matter of highest order," says Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel. Getting into the club has long been an Israeli goal; getting in now, despite rising international criticism of Netanyahu's policies, was a product of intense lobbying by the administration. U.S. Middle East envoy "George Mitchell spent hours on the phone calling individual foreign ministers himself to ensure Israel had the votes,? says former Congressman Robert Wexler, who now heads the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. ?The American ambassadors throughout Europe were engaged in this fight."
Meanwhile, Obama also asked Congress for a boost in military aid to Israel, in the form of a special $205 million allocation to finance the Iron Dome project -- an Israeli-produced system designed to intercept the kind of short-range rockets that Hamas and Hezbollah have fired from Gaza and Lebanon. And in June the administration won Security Council approval for new sanctions against Iran -- an accomplishment that required Russian and Chinese assent and defied Israeli pessimism.
Obama's case should be that he has made Israel safer, in large part through diplomatic activism and the ability to work with other countries. Inexplicably, he's done too little to present this case.
Instead, he has allowed the news cycle to be dominated entirely by disagreements with Netanyahu on territory and settlements and how to pursue peace. Yet Washington and Jerusalem have disagreed on those issues since Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip began in 1967, without fracturing their underlying relationship. Until now, the key difference between Obama and his immediate predecessor has been, again, activism. Rather than merely talking about a two-state solution, Obama pushed Netanyahu to stop settlement and start negotiating seriously. That policy showed real concern for Israel's future. As Alon Liel, former director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry says, taking "the default choice" of doing nothing means that Israel will soon be so entrenched in the West Bank that it cannot withdraw. "In three years or five, the Palestinians say, 'If you won't give the land, give us our individual rights. Make us citizens,'" Liel says. "That's the end of the Jewish state."
Instead, the latest meeting in Washington has projected a picture of the Israeli tail wagging the American dog. For Netanyahu, it provides momentary relief from the strains in his governing coalition. The parliamentary right is opposed to any renewal of the settlement freeze (ineffective as the moratorium has actually been). But Netanyahu will be no more eager to declare an extension of the freeze in September than he is now -- and with the U.S. election only weeks away, he'll feel at least as confident about defying Obama.
In the meantime, his government has kept providing financial incentives to Israelis living in settlements, as a report issued this week by the B'Tselem human-rights group details. As in the past, settlements are classified as being in a "National Priority Area," which entitles them to higher funding from government ministries than most towns within Israel. For instance, the government pays for a longer school day in settlements, and teachers living there receive higher pay. As the report notes, the full costs of the subsidies are so well hidden that they are "virtually impossible to quantify." To use Liel's term, Netanyahu is pursuing the "default choice" of entrenchment.
To maintain some hope [FOR?], I remind myself what I've found looking at the minutes of diplomatic meetings declassified decades after they took place [CORRECT?]: They often portray a reality entirely different from the news reports of the time. So perhaps Obama's show of turning off the pressure is only that: a show. It's possible that the staff-level preparation for this meeting included a deal: To save Netanyahu the embarrassment of another obviously tense session, the leaders would meet the press and grin. Obama would not demand a declaration that the freeze would continue -- as long as, de facto, Netanyahu does his best to keep lower-level officials from approving new construction. (That would fit the approach in recent months toward construction in East Jerusalem.) Netanyahu may even have agreed to start negotiating the core issues of a peace agreement, as long as he doesn't have to admit to it publicly. Those quiet concessions would meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' minimal requirements for direct talks with Israel -- and explain Obama's hope that direct negotiations will begin "well before the [settlement] moratorium has expired."
The test is what happens in the weeks ahead. If a wave of new settlement building is approved at the end of September, we'll know that Obama has decided to not take the electoral risk of peacemaking. If direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations begin and if October comes without new settlement plans, it just might mean that Netanyahu's price for moderation is not owning up to it. That would be a reason to smile.