Dialogue between Jerusalem and Washington over the past week has been done via speech-making. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman swept aside the Annapolis process, and U.S. President Barack Obama swept it right back. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the two-state solution and Obama "clarified" that the United States not only "strongly" supports it, but he himself intends to advance it.
What's going on here? Clearly the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration have not yet developed discrete communication channels to let them coordinate their policy and avoid statements that would embarrass the other party. The response from Netanyahu's bureau after Obama's speech was mainly intended to play for time "to formulate a policy."
Obama conveyed four messages to Netanyahu in his address in the Turkish parliament.
1. Don't waste my time trying to revoke the "two-state solution" and replace it with a new vision that would not include an independent Palestinian state beside Israel.
The Israeli right, which was never keen on the Palestinian state, had hoped that the repeated failures in the talks on the final-status agreement would take the idea off the table. They hoped it would be replaced with something else, enabling Israel to continue occupying the West Bank, directly or with Jordan. Obama made it clear Monday that he is committed to the formula George W. Bush set.
2. The government change in Israel does not free it of its Bush-era commitment in the Annapolis declaration and road map - a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity in the West Bank, freezing settlements and evacuating outposts, economic and security assistance to the Palestinian Authority and continuous negotiations on all core issues.
Israeli officials noticed that Obama's people didn't mention the Annapolis process and interpreted this as the burial of Bush and Condoleezza Rice's ideas. Lieberman announced that only the road map, not Annapolis, was binding because the map conditions the negotiations on quashing the Palestinian terror organizations. The president said this interpretation was unacceptable and that the Annapolis declaration was alive and well.
3. The Syrian track is legitimate, but takes a lower priority. The Bush administration firmly objected to the Turkish-brokered talks with the Syrians. Obama thanked the Turks for their help and involvement but did not promise that America would assist an Israeli-Syrian arrangement, unlike its commitment to the Palestinian track. His declared order of priorities, like Netanyahu's, is the Palestinians first.
4. Obama's initiative to talk with Iran is not tantamount to accepting an Iranian nuclear bomb. The president demanded that Iran choose between building weapons and building a better future. In his speech in Prague on Sunday he suggested that the Iranians continue using the non-military nuclear plan under tight supervision or risk isolation, international pressure and a nuclear arms race in the region. But he did not speak of military action and didn't even use the vague "all options are on the table." Netanyahu will have to work hard to convince Obama that the real choice is bombing Iran's nuclear facilities or accepting that country to the nuclear club.
Obama's speech in Prague contained two more messages for Israel. Obama mentioned Tel Aviv among the cities threatened with nuclear attack, alongside New York, Moscow, Islamabad, Mumbai, Paris and Prague. He warned that even one bomb on one of them would kill hundreds of thousands and undermine world order and even human survival.
The second message was Obama's call to eliminate nuclear weapons, one of his campaign promises. The practical steps he mentioned included formulating a treaty to stop producing fissile materials that could be used in nuclear weapons.
More than a decade ago, in Netanyahu's previous tenure, this initiative almost caused a crisis between Jerusalem and Washington. Since then Israeli officials seem to have internalized the idea and realized it would resurface. It will be interesting to see if Obama discusses it at his next meeting with the prime minister.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now