Yesterday's tripartite summit in New York showed that even a photo op can be an important tool of diplomacy. U.S. President Barack Obama stood before the cameras and assumed the pose of a stern teacher lecturing two classroom miscreants. With an unsmiling face, he explained to both Israelis and Palestinians that an end to the conflict is an American interest, and that both sides must immediately sit down and resume talks on a final-status accord. Afterward, in a closed-door meeting, he continued to lecture them about the need to expedite preparations for negotiations.
Obama's aides certainly told their boss that the Israeli press, which relies primarily on statements from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his inner circle, has depicted him in recent days as a dishrag. During interviews with the media in advance of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, the premier bragged that he is no sucker. Rather, he is a Popeye, who heroically withstood pressure from Obama to freeze settlement construction.
The Israel media billed the tripartite summit as a ridiculous, unnecessary undertaking. Obama's peace efforts were derided as a preordained failure. And Defense Minister Ehud Barak blamed the Palestinians for missing an opportunity even before negotiations had begun.
Nor does Obama look any better to Palestinian eyes. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had refused to meet Netanyahu as long as construction continued in the settlements, and up until the last possible moment, he continued saying "no" to Obama's envoy, George Mitchell, who spearheaded the effort to organize the summit.
Saeb Erekat, the PA's perennial negotiator, said last week that the chances of convening the summit were "zero." He was proven wrong less than a day later, when both sides were summoned by the White House.
In this situation, with his determination and credibility subject to doubt, Obama had to assume the mantle of leadership and make clear to both Israel and the Palestinians that there are limits to their intransigence. The message he wished to send during the summit is that he has no patience for the endless mutual recriminations and the heavy historical burdens that are weighing down both sides.
Obama did not radiate warmth or extend hugs to Netanyahu and Abbas the way president Bill Clinton did in his day. Nor did he try to dictate the contents of a joint statement, as president George W. Bush did. In his view, it would be silly to waste time on tortuous diplomatic verbiage. What is important is getting to the matter at hand.
Yet Obama's real test still awaits him. It is not enough to display toughness on live television. Abbas and Netanyahu have for many years starred in the long-running media show "Who's to Blame for the Lack of Peace." They will certainly try to absorb Obama's reprimand and continue as if nothing had happened. It is apparent that neither of them want either negotiations or a final-status agreement.
If Obama really believes what he said yesterday, he will have to be much tougher down the road. Then, the stakes will not be a mere meeting devoid of content in a New York hotel, but the future of Jerusalem.
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