Netanyahu at the White House

03/03/2014 09:29 am ET | Updated May 03, 2014
  • Natan Sachs Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy in Washington D.C.

While not exactly friends, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama are no strangers either. They speak regularly; They know each other's positions on most issues; And cooperation and "strategic dialogue" between their administrations are so routine they are rarely even reported. One might be tempted, therefore, to treat their meeting this Monday in Washington as no more than diplomatic adjunct to Netanyahu's appearance at the annual conference of AIPAC, the largest American pro-Israel organization.

This week's meeting is unusually consequential, however. It comes at a time of high stakes and imminent decisions on core issues. First on the presidential docket are the negotiations for Israeli-Palestinian peace; first on the prime minister's agenda (and second, and third, say many Israelis) remains Iran's nuclear program. And in the background is the perennial unpleasantness between the two leaders, which peaked before the U.S. presidential elections, when Netanyahu was viewed by democrats as siding with Mitt Romney.

Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

The moment of truth for Secretary of State John Kerry's nine-month effort at Israeli-Palestinian peace is fast approaching. All reports suggest that the American peace team, led by Special Envoy Martin Indyk, is preparing a U.S. proposal, detailing many of the core final-status issues as a basis for continued negotiations beyond the initial deadline. On March 17th, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will follow Netanyahu to the White House. In both meetings, the president likely will urge the two leaders to accept the U.S. proposal, or at least to limit their reservations and agree to proceed with the talks.

Among the issues that Netanyahu may face is whether to accept the 1967 border, with mutual land swaps, as the basis for a future deal, a position the president articulated in May 2011, to Israel's chagrin. If Netanyahu accepted such a formulation, he would surely face political trouble from his domestic right flank; it would also constitute a major shift in the prime minister's positions. For Abbas, one of the hardest pills to swallow will be Netanyahu's adamant demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the national homeland for the Jewish people. Such recognition, Netanyahu argues, would signal a fundamental end to Palestinian claims and the key to real peace. The latest polls suggest Netanyahu has convinced a majority of Israelis of this position.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are loath to be blamed for a failure of the talks, each hoping to present a "yes, but" answer, in which they accept the U.S. proposal in principle but maintain deep reservations.

The time for arm twisting has arrived, in other words, and the president himself will now get involved.

More publicly, the president will be combating the longstanding perception in the region that the peace negotiations are a personal crusade of Kerry's of which the White House has little interest, having been burned by the issue early in the president's first term. This allows opponents of a peace deal, such as Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon, to target Kerry personally. The better the president is able publicly to convey his resolute backing for Kerry's efforts, the stronger the domestic political case will be for Netanyahu and Abbas to acquiesce to what will be perceived as United States'--rather than Kerry's--demands.

Doing so will not be easy. The details of the negotiations are being kept purposely private, and the president will want to keep them so, to allow the parties to negotiate in earnest. But having kept presidential involvement largely in reserve thus far, simple photos-ops that clearly convey intimate presidential involvement in the peace process would help make the public case. For all the bluster, even opponents of the peace process in Israel would rather not quarrel too frequently with the United States.

Iran's Nuclear Program

For the prime minister, the negotiations with the Palestinians remain secondary to his longstanding primary concern: stopping Iran's nuclear program. Following the signing of the interim agreement between the P5+1 world powers and Iran, a deal Netanyahu called an "historic mistake", the Israeli government is fighting a rearguard battle to stave off the worst outcome from its perspective, a permanent deal that would lift further sanctions on Iran and let the Iran's leaders off the hook of international pressure.

Israel's options are limited. Whereas before the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of the Islamic Republic, Iran was a borderline pariah state, companies and governments now envision a near future in which the Iranian economy, and oil reserves, re-open for business. Positive expectations are already easing the pressure on Iran. This, Netanyahu fears, will end Iran's incentive to negotiate and will allow it to continue its steady, though paced, march toward nuclear weapons capabilities and to an actual weapon, should Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decide to build one. In the aftermath of the interim deal, and while negotiations proceed on a permanent agreement, Israeli officials are trying to stem the diplomatic tide in favor of Iran, through public and private warnings. Monday's meeting surely will be no exception.

Washington Politics

The Iranian nuclear issue also touches upon ongoing tensions between the leaders stemming from the perception of mutual interference in the other's domestic political affairs.

Netanyahu will address the AIPAC policy conference at a difficult moment for the organization. Following the interim agreement with Iran, AIPAC heavily backed and lobbied for legislation that would have both advanced further sanctions on Iran and would have possibly set limits on what the president could agree to in a permanent deal. The administration fought hard against the passage of such legislation, and in his State of Union speech before Congress, the president--historically a veto-averse president--made clear he would would not sign the legislation should it pass. The legislation has since stalled, blocked by the Senate leadership, in sharp contrast to AIPAC's image (among detractors in particular) as all-powerful.

Naturally, the perception in Washington that Israel--or at least its largest supporter on K street--was lobbying intensely for congressional action that the president strongly opposed, did little to quell underlying tensions between the U.S. and Israeli administrations.

And yet, whether or not they like each other or each other's policies, the two leaders are destined to live with one another for some time to come. Most likely, they will attempt to portray public amity, stressing the many areas in which cooperation between the countries is extremely close. Behind closed doors, however, differences on major policy issues remain.

The stakes on both the Israeli-Palestinian and the Iranian issues are high; important decisions on both will soon be required. It would serve both countries well if in private, too, the leaders were able to work closely on what are, at the end of the day, closely aligned interests.