In Washington, Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed his pledge to make peace with Palestinians - but analysts raise doubts
NEW YORK - Even while Benjamin Netanyahu was still in the Oval Office on Monday, analysts questioned whether the Israeli Prime Minister’s renewed pledge to help build an autonomous Palestinian state was sincere – or political expedience.
In his first face-to-face talks with US President Barack Obama in 13 months, Netanyahu said he backed a vision of “two states for two peoples” amid concerns that the Israeli leader’s hard-line government has little interest in living beside a country called Palestine.
“I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace,” Netanyahu told reporters. But he maintained that any Palestinian state must be demilitarised and recognise Israel as a Jewish homeland, a condition Palestinians have rejected.
The White House summit focused on a new 10-year US military aid package designed to assuage Israel’s security concerns over a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, and took place after an uptick in violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Israel and Palestinian areas.
Despite a history of testy White House meetings, Obama and Netanyahu appeared friendly and business-like. In the past, Obama has criticised Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank; Netanyahu has blasted the US president’s deal with Iran for undermining Israel’s security.
Obama said he wanted to hear how Netanyahu would “lower the temperature between Israelis and Palestinians, how we can get back on a path towards peace, and how we can make sure that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are met through a political process”.
He also condemned the latest wave of Palestinian violence against “innocent Israeli citizens” and backed Israel’s right to defend itself. Administration officials say that any peace deal during the remaining 14 months of Obama’s presidency is not likely.
Analysts suggested that Netanyahu is more interested in a 10-year defence deal to replace the $3bn Israel gets in US military aid each year, which will expire in 2017. Support could grow to $4-5bn each year, according to reports.
Netanyahu also eyes more stealth F-35 fighters, precision munitions, V-22 Ospreys and other hardware to maintain Israel’s strategic advantage, by having the region’s best-equipped armed forces, as well as undeclared nuclear weapons.
“We shouldn’t buy what Netanyahu’s selling, and the Obama administration clearly doesn’t either, to judge by its downplaying of the likelihood that the peace process will be reanimated before he leaves office,” Marc Sirois, an independent analyst, told MEE.
“At best, the Americans will try to rent Netanyahu’s lukewarm commitment as a means of lessening current tensions, but the two sides are way too far apart to get at root causes on this narrow issue, let alone make progress on a peace agreement.”
Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute, a think tank, said Netanyahu’s confidence-building efforts to the Palestinians were “really gestures of goodwill for Obama,” after months of acrimony between the two leaders.
“It wouldn’t look good for Netanyahu to show up in Washington and just ask for more weapons, more political cover and more support without offering anything in return - and this is what he has to offer,” he told MEE.
“These gestures are not nothing. Netanyahu wants to quell the violence, but they won’t do much to quell the violence and can be easily reversed. Netanyahu, perhaps reluctantly, believes in a two-state solution, but doesn’t think it will happen for years. Apparently Obama agrees.”
Netanyahu’s recommitment to a two-state solution, a long-stated goal of US diplomats, may satisfy Obama’s desire that he clarify his position after backtracking on that pledge during his hard-won re-election campaign earlier this year.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Netanyahu should be judged by what he delivers.
Vijay Prashad, an international relations scholar at Trinity College, Connecticut, said he expected little gains against a gloomy backdrop of stalled negotiations, bickering among rival Palestinian factions and fears of an intifada-style uprising.
“Little has happened over the course of the entire Obama presidency, so why expect something in these final months?” he told MEE.
“The problem is that the Israelis have nothing on the table. They will not stop the settlement building, the minimum precondition that the Obama administration has placed for criticism. How can anything move forward?”
The meeting was a chance for the two leaders to reboot their flagging personal relationship after a row over the deal that Iran reached in July with world powers, which curbs its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
Obama refused to meet Netanyahu in March, when the Israeli leader accepted an invitation from Republican leaders without consulting the White House, and blasted Obama’s deal-making with Tehran during a congressional address.
Some analysts say that, beyond striking a new US-Israeli security deal, Netanyahu will wait out the final stretch of Obama’s presidency and hope for a more sympathetic White House occupant after the US presidential election in November 2016.
By offering Israel security guarantees, Obama can help deflect accusations from Republican presidential hopefuls that he and any Democratic successor would leave Washington’s strongest Middle Eastern ally unprotected.
In the US, Netanyahu will meet lawmakers, receive an award from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and speak at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think tank, where he is expected to try and win back Democrats after the Iran row.
On Monday, two political pressure groups – Jewish Voice for Peace and the Arab American Institute (AAI) – were joined by activists in criticising the CAP for giving Netanyahu a platform to “repackage his increasingly far-right agenda,” they said in a letter.
“A left leaning think tank should not welcome a foreign leader who has spent the duration of his time in office working against the Democratic president’s stated objectives for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iran nuclear deal.” Maya Berry, AAI’s director, told MEE.
The lead Democratic candidates for next year’s election – Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – are backers of Israel, much like many Republican presidential aspirants. Last week, Clinton wrote about America’s “unbreakable bonds” with Israel.
George Bisharat, a Palestinian-American professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, said Netanyahu’s attempt to woo Democrats may come too late, as attitudes in the US are shifting away from unqualified support for Israel.
“Israel’s strategic significance to the US is diminishing, its actions towards Palestinians drives down its popularity globally, adding a cost to the US,” he told MEE. “The US-Israel relationship is based on military, strategic and security interests, not personalities, and it is changing.”