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Dr. Josef Olmert

Dr. Josef Olmert

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Obama and Netanyahu: The Balance Sheet

Posted: 05/23/11 11:20 AM ET

Henry Kissinger once remarked that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic one. Clearly an observation relevant to many other countries, up to a point, also the US, but let's stick with Israel.

Netanyahu can claim a major achievement in so far as his domestic arena is concerned. He has reasserted his position as the leader of the Israeli Right-Wing, both its secular and religious factions, no mean feat in a country with such turbulent politics as Israel. Everything is temporary, and Netanyahu will have to maintain the support of his base in his upcoming speeches, at AIPAC and in Congress.

Netanyahu has no problems of command of English or accent, and surely no lack of self-confidence -- all were in ample, perhaps too ample supply at the Oval Office on Friday -- so the speeches are bound to be polished and captivating.

There are those who believe that the impending speeches may be the most crucial in his political career. Not really. They are important, but a little piece of caution is necessary; Netanyahu will talk to at least four audiences: the American pro-Israel community, Congress, the administration, and last but not least, Israel's public opinion. The need to accommodate such a divergent field means that big drama will not be there. We'll see a lot of theatrics, great use of historic analogies and a distinct attempt to convey the message of business as usual between Israel and the Obama administration. If Netanyahu erred in any of his reactions to the first Obama speech, it was with the initial over-reaction of some of his surrogates, no doubt sent by him, to the reference to the 1967 lines. The next speeches will inevitably be more nuanced and conciliatory.

President Obama did not really deviate at the AIPAC speech from the main tenets of his initial speech, but he added some words of clarification to his reference to the 1967 lines, which if appearing in that speech, could have weathered the unnecessary storm. But then, the storm may have served well the president, judging by initial Palestinian reactions, as well as that of some American commentators who hailed his readiness to take the risk of a possible rift with the powerful pro-Israel community, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

The next chapter for the president is his European visit. In the old continent, Israel's position is much weaker than that in the US -- no doubt a temptation for the president to resort to the terminology used in the first speech, rather than that at AIPAC. The likelihood of that happening is low, surely if Netanyahu will perform in his next speeches as expected of him.

Altogether, both Obama and Netanyahu may not know it, but they were engaged in an act of Yemenite dancing, one step forward, half a step backward... but then, this is what diplomacy is all about. The fanfare should not mislead us to believe that this round is bound to end up differently than many of its predecessors. There still is at least one major novel element, and this has to do with the president's insistence that he simply put on the table what others, both Israeli and American leaders, referred to in euphemisms.

Any serious negotiation must be based on the parties taking the plunge and dealing with those issues that could compromise them with their own domestic constituencies. President Obama confronted Netanyahu with the borders issue, something that the former will not be able to ignore anymore. Since we need two for a tango the American side will have to confront Abbas and Fayyad with their big nightmare, namely the inclusion of Hamas in their government. Not enough was said about that in the first speech -- more at AIPAC, but not enough. The inclusion of Hamas makes any progress simply impossible, so the president wishing to prevent the negotiations from being an exercise of futility should use his European visit as an opportunity to explain this obvious reality to Abbas. Difficult decisions yes, but for all the parties concerned, the Palestinians included.

If the current situation will develop into a full fledged negotiation, there will be room for another big speech, perhaps the mother of all speeches, an Obama speech in the city of Zion and Jerusalem. The huge ratings are assured and so Kissinger's observation may still prove right also with regard to the US...