In retrospect, the first meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was destined to succeed. It was assumed that the two men were deeply divided on two key issues: Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority, in particular Mr. Netanyahu’s opposition to a “two-state solution,” and dealing with Iran, which seems bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon capability. Yet Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu went out of their way to show agreement in their positions. That may not last.
After being largely disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process during the Bush administration, the United States is posed to resume an activist role in the region. Mr. Obama recognizes that the festering conflict is a cancer, capable of not only deteriorating into war but also undermining U.S. interests elsewhere in the Middle East. Creating a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians would eliminate a source of rancor and anger against Washington and could help transform perceptions of the U.S. throughout the Muslim world.
A key obstacle to the peace process is the spread of Israel’s settlements. Palestinians — and much of the world — see the growth of settlements as an attempt to create “facts on the ground” that make it impossible for Israel to return territory claimed by Palestinians. Most Western nations, including the U.S., consider the settlements in the West Bank to be illegal under international law. Throughout his Washington visit, Mr. Netanyahu was told of the U.S. desire to see the growth of the settlements halted. Mr. Obama was blunt: “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.”
Mr. Netanyahu did not budge. The prime minister has been one of the strongest supporters of the settlers out of conviction — for reasons of both history and national security — and domestic politics. Despite being pressed by the U.S. president, Mr. Netanyahu remained silent. That was to be expected: This is the start of a dialogue between the U.S. and Israel and movement on this issue, without concessions from the Palestinians, would alienate the prime minister’s supporters at home.
Progress on this issue is likely only after Mr. Obama travels to the Middle East next month and delivers a key speech in Egypt. Then, the president is likely to echo Mr. Netanyahu’s argument that other Arab states must help create a context for talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority. Indeed, after meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Obama said he seeks “a wide-ranging regional peace.” Of course, Israel must provide those nations a reason to engage: If Mr. Netanyahu merely looks to be expanding the negotiations to make it easier for him to stall, then those moderate Arab nations will rightly refuse to get involved.
On the second key issue, Iran, the two men seemed to be in sync. Again, Mr. Netanyahu sought to frame this as a regional issue, one that threatened Israel, the U.S. and moderate Arab regimes, too. In another significant departure from the policy of his predecessor, Mr. Obama is trying to engage the Iranian leadership diplomatically. Many Israelis are suspicious of this process — many Americans are too — and worry that the Iranians are trying to drag out the talks to present the world with a nuclear fait accompli. Some worry that the U.S. is resigned to containing a proliferation problem rather than ending it.
Mr. Obama made an effort to dispel those fears by putting a deadline on the negotiations, saying he wants to see serious progress in the talks by yearend. That gladdened Mr. Netanyahu, who was also pleased to hear Mr. Obama repeat that all options remain on the table. U.S. officials worry that Israel may feel compelled to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, as it did against Iraq in 1981. Iran has dispersed and hardened its nuclear facilities, lowering the odds of success of such a strike. It is certain, though, that a strike by Israel would inflame Muslim opinion against Israel and would likely unleash a new wave of terrorism against Israel and its friends and allies.
The question is how to best safeguard the security concerns of each country. Mr. Netanyahu is convinced that there can be no peace with a Palestinian state, and that such an entity must remain weak. That has proven to be a recipe for frustration and anger, as Israel is not enjoying peace and security. Palestinians deserve a state, but with it comes responsibilities, foremost of which is not waging war against a neighbor. Palestinian officials (and many of the Palestinian people, it must be acknowledged) refuse to take those obligations seriously. They must.
Iran poses more difficult challenges. The only solution is a concerted international effort that presents a united front. Tehran’s demands for status and security must be honored. At the same time, there can be no acquiescing to the acquisition of a nuclear weapon capacity. Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu must agree on both parts of that equation. Thus far, they seem to.
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