ANALYSIS / Obama trying carrot, not stick, on Netanyahu
Netanyahu got off easy in Washington: He left strengthened by Obama and without having to make any real concessions.
From the White House's perspective, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a constant state of vacillation, evading any decision that could get him into political trouble.
United States President Barack Obama is striving to put an end to Netanyahu's hesitations and push him to make the historic decision to withdraw from the occupied territories and establish a Palestinian state in place of the settlements.
Such a breakthrough is expected to shift the balance of powers in the Middle East and put the U.S. and its president on the Arab world's good side. But Netanyahu is not budging from his secure seat on the fence.
During the two leaders first years in office, Obama tried to push Netanyahu off the fence using sticks: His administration denied Netnayahu joint photo-ops with the U.S. president as well as other honors and extorted interim concessions, such as accepting a two-state solution, a ten-month settlement freeze, a silent cessation of construction in East Jerusalem and an ease on the Gaza blockade.
Netanyahu accepted the dictates, but the strategic policies have not changed and a Palestinian state is still a distant dream. Netanyahu has also succeeded in surviving politically, maintaining a right-wing coalition despite the pressures from Washington.
However, Obama is changing his tactics. Instead of punishing Netanyahu with sticks, he is trying to entice him with carrots: Netanyahu might make an effort to taste the carrot and finally fall off the fence.
Even if a Palestinian state and a peace agreement don’t come from it, and the Arab world shrugs its shoulders, Obama will at least garner support from Israel sympathizers in Congress and the U.S. Jewish community ahead of the midterm elections in November.
This sets the background for the sudden display of affection for Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday.
After a year of dribs and drabs and briefings over the lack of chemistry between the two leaders - the fact that Obama can't stand Netanyahu and does not believe him - we suddenly heard praises like he had an "excellent conversation" with his Israeli counterpart, and public statements saying: I believe that Netanyahu wants, and is willing to take risks for peace.
That is exactly how former U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Bush of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Obama did not settle for the personal, friendly gestures or Michelle's meeting with Sara, but also added messages that are music to Israeli's ears: A call for direct talks with the Palestinians "before September," and a public promise that efforts for weapons control and decommissioning nuclear weapons "will not harm Israel's security."
Netanyahu, in exchange, spoke of peace, but evaded publicly supporting a Palestinian state, warned that a withdrawal from the West Bank could culminate with rockets landing in central Israel, and urged Obama to strengthen the sanctions against Iran.
For Netanyahu this was a huge victory. His claim that he can stand against U.S. pressure, making only tactical concessions, has proven true. He leveraged internal U.S. politics in his favor, without weakening the right-wing coalition in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu got off easy, without having to make any announcements that would anger Benny Begin, Moshe Ya'alon and the Yesha council. Meanwhile, Obama is strengthening him from the left.
The presidential embrace will make it difficult for the Labor Party to resign from the government now, using the excuse that Netanyahu is not doing enough to promote peace.
If Obama believes him, what will Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog say?
But Netanyahu should remember that his achievement is fine for the hour, and the American approach could revert back from carrots to sticks, especially if the pleasant chatter amounts to nothing, and Obama once again feels he needs political gains in the Middle East.