President Obama's visit to Israel could open the door for a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations based on the two-state solution, however slim the prospects are for peace at the moment. The chances of success will depend in no small measure on the amount of pressure the Obama administration is willing to exert on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under whose watch peace talks have broken down.
Obama's key challenge will be to get Netanyahu to adopt a more constructive approach, one that is conducive to finalizing a peace deal. This is hardly an easy task, to which Obama himself can attest, given his repeated clashes with the Israeli premier over the last four years. At the same time, however, Netanyahu is legendary for being susceptible to pressure.
Netanyahu publicly endorsed a "demilitarized Palestinian state" for the first time at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, a month after his first White House meeting with Obama in which the president emphasized the importance of the two-state solution and merely 10 days following Obama's Cairo speech, in which he again stressed his support for a Palestinian state that would live side-by-side in peace with Israel. Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech was meant "for Obama's ears," as Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea put it at the time and as Netanyahu's Likud party colleague, Tzipi Hotevely, confirmed several months ago when she stated that Netanyahu's speech was based on tactical considerations. Ofer Shelah, a member of parliament from the Yesh Atid party, who has joined the new Netanyahu government but then was a columnist for Ma'ariv, noted skeptically in response to Netanyahu's speech that "the only way anything will move here will be if the Americans force it, on us and them."
Obama's visit to Israel, coupled with Netanyahu's indecisiveness and tendency to cave under pressure, provides the president with an opportunity to wring important concessions from the Israeli premier.
Former U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross, in his book The Missing Peace, suggests that Netanyahu's reluctance to make bold moves for peace is due to his being "riveted on his political base rather than on the needs of the [peace] process." Writes Ross: "Too often he would make decisions based on strictly political calculations such as his fear that his cabinet would 'fry' him if the word 'withdrawal' appeared in even a discreet formula." Indeed, had it not been for the Clinton administration's continual pressure on Netanyahu, he never would have signed the Hebron Agreement and Wye River Memorandum during the Oslo process.
Ross's observation about Netanyahu's decision-making style is just as relevant today as it was in the 1990s. In its recent primaries, Netanyahu's Likud party purged its moderates and filled its ranks with ideological hardliners fervently opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Neither the party nor Netanyahu's last cabinet has come out in support of the two-state solution. Netanyahu's decision to form a joint list with the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party prior to the recent elections will make it even more difficult for him to reach a deal with the Palestinians, as will the inclusion of Naftali Bennett's pro-settler Jewish Home party in the new government.
Obama's earlier pressure on Netanyahu resulted in a partial, though short-lived, settlement freeze and Netanyahu's historic declaration of support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. To be sure, Obama overplayed his hand with his insistence on a total settlement freeze, which was beyond Netanyahu's capacity to deliver. However, when Obama ultimately backed off altogether, Netanyahu resumed settlement construction at an aggressive pace while taking no steps to resume negotiations. Then too, he acted under pressure: pressure by the right.
Active and sustained U.S. engagement -- which entails pressuring both sides -- is a sine qua non for success in the peace negotiations.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should be pressed to resume direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions, refrain from carrying out his threat of taking Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over its settlement policies, and abstain from anti-Israel incitement.
But it is Netanyahu who holds most of the cards and whose policies have most seriously undermined the two-state solution and it is therefore he who needs to be pressed more than anyone else. Obama ought to implore Netanyahu to release Fatah-affiliated prisoners as a good-will gesture that will strengthen Abbas, to refrain from expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to resume negotiations in earnest.
Most Israelis are already on board with the two-state solution. Obama's planned televised speech this Thursday to Israeli students in a 1000-seat convention center can potentially be the venue he needs to make the case that their government ought to work toward this vital goal.
Follow Guy Ziv on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ZivGuy