The impression one gets on the eve of the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama is that there has never been so much hype before. The media have employed typical hyperbole, describing it as a "clash of the titans" and speaking of a historic turning point in U.S.-Israel ties, and possibly in the Middle East at large.
The high expectations can be traced to the aura of leadership surrounding Obama - and the hope that he will bring about unprecedented change in every facet of American policy, both foreign and domestic - and to Netanyahu's return to the premiership after a decade in the political wilderness. Now that he has come back to power, Netanyahu believes history has chosen him to prevent a second Holocaust, manifested in an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel.
Obama will receive Netanyahu in the Oval Office today, at a time when Obama's supporters expect him to brandish the stick and force Israel out of the territories. They see Obama's popular standing among the American public, the solid Democratic majority in Congress and the weakened pro-Israel lobby as combining to create unique conditions of political power that could end the occupation and the settlement enterprise and establish an independent Palestinian state.
Netanyahu is heading to the meeting with the knowledge that this is the chance of his lifetime. He will sit next to Obama and try to convince him to focus his efforts on stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear explosives. From Netanyahu's point of view, Iran is the first, second and third subject on the agenda, leaving everything else - including Israel's relations with the Palestinians and with Syria - at the bottom of the heap. If Obama shows understanding on the Iranian issue, Netanyahu will be more flexible on other matters.
Netanyahu's aides were pleased with Obama's recent interview with Newsweek, in which he expressed understanding of Israel's view that Iran poses an existential threat.
"No, look, I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, you can understand why," Obama told the U.S. news magazine. "They're right there in range and I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are."
"I can make an argument to Israel as an ally that the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to some of the other alternatives," he said.
Netanyahu is ready to do this, but he will also tell Obama that time is running out.
Some disagreements linger behind the mutual understanding, however. Netanyahu is hinting that Israel will strike Iran's nuclear installations, and Obama has sent the head of the Central Intelligence Agency to Israel to warn of the serious repercussions of such action. But nothing will happen in the coming months, so Iran will not be the issue in dispute at today's meeting.
Netanyahu's problem is the Palestinian question. On June 4, Obama will give an address in Cairo in which he will present his vision on the Middle East. While George W. Bush spoke of the two-state solution in 2002, Obama is likely to express greater commitment to Palestinian independence than his predecessor did. Netanyahu can be expected to attempt to influence the content of that speech in an effort to avoid a confrontation with his right-wing coalition as well as with Obama. Netanyahu will be only one Mideast visitor doing his part to influence the speech; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will also be meeting with the U.S. president.
But Netanyahu is in a bind: He can't afford to anger the Americans over the settlements, but stands to lose a great deal among his supporters in Likud if he does take action. And so he will attempt to remove the settlements - not from the West Bank but from the center of discussion, using the usual method of establishing a committee. He will try to find a formula that will assuage the United States without declaring a freeze on settlement construction that could lose him the coalition. It will be interesting to see whether Obama opts for confrontation now or decides to go along at Netanyahu's pace.
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