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Mr Netanyahu goes to Washington

This is a guest-post from Alex Stein of falsedichotomies.com

Monday’s meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is kicking up an unprecedented frenzy. This is the moment, we are told, when decades of blinkered American support of Israeli rejectionism will come to an end. Obama will tell Netanyahu in no uncertain terms that the jig is up, that the time has come to dismantle the outposts, remove the checkpoints, stop construction in the larger settlements and declare unambiguous support for the two-state solution. He might even conclude the ritual press conference by saying, “Mr Netanyahu, Tear down this Wall!”

This is the fantasy. As usual, the reality is a bit more blurred. On a rhetorical level, it seems as though Obama’s Mid-East policy is decisively different to what has come before. He seems committed to multilateralism, diplomacy, and reaching out to America’s traditional foes. He also understands the importance of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the realm of action, though, there is less to discuss. The activist president at home is still surveying the scene abroad.

The time for talking, however, must surely soon be over. Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu is the second of four key meetings with regional leaders – King Abdullah, President Abbas, and President Mubarak are the other three. Iran and Lebanon are about to go to the polls, the picture is beginning to get clearer. Obama will have to state in no uncertain terms what his policy is.

In the meantime he has to contend with the sphinx that is Benyamin Netanyahu. There are two interpretations of this great political survivor. One depicts him as evolving slowly towards a two-state solution. He may be no great fan of the idea of Palestinian sovereignty, but he sees that getting out of the vast majority of the West Bank is the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. If only it wasn’t for his extreme right-wing coalition, forced on him by the intransigence of Tzipi Livni! The second interpretation has Bibi down as an obfuscator, a slightly more media-savvy version of Yitzhak Shamir, a man who will do whatever it takes to obstruct progress on the ground, whether by talking the hind legs off a donkey or whipping up hysteria regarding the Iranian threat.

Whichever take of Netanyahu you concur with, one aspect of his politics is clear: the man is in thrall to American power. He understands more than anyone that Israel cannot forgo American support. Given the clear picture of Obama’s politics that one assumes has been painted for him by his neocon advisers, then, this puts him a bind. How can he extricate himself from the puzzle?

Since being elected, he’s tried everything. First ‘economic peace’, then support for the Palestinian security services, then I-won’t-do-anything-unless-you-sort-out-Iran-first – if all else fails try dubious linkage. If anything, it works the other way round. It seems logical that serious progress towards Israeli-Arab peace will undermine Iranian influence, exaggerations of Arab fears regarding the Iranian nuclear project notwithstanding.

Soon we’ll find out if any of this has worked. He still has time though. Obama is sensitive enough to the political reality to tread carefully in these early stages. If he has time to try and convince Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions (and to persuade Israel not to attack), then he certainly has time to convince Bibi to lead Israel down the only sensible path for its future. In short, don’t expect a dressing-down. In the long run, however, the die seems to have been cast. There is a sea-change in American thinking on the Israel-Palestine issue, and patience is finally beginning to run out. Israel can do it the easy way or the hard way. Right now, it’s Bibi’s choice to make.