Who's Afraid of Barack Obama?

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama are both trying to figure out if, in upcoming addresses, they should convey a sharp, resolute policy message or engage in the usual noncommittal prattle.

Seven weeks from now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take his place on the podium and deliver his "Bar-Ilan 2" foreign policy speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. This is Netanyahu's home court: They love him there, or are at least scared of the lobby that supports him. The prime minister will address the senators and congressmen, but his remarks will actually be aimed at someone who will not be sitting in the hall, but rather in the White House, three kilometers away from Capitol Hill. Netanyahu wants to show Barack Obama that Congress is behind him, and to deter the president from imposing an arrangement that would eject Israel from the West Bank and the settlers from their homes.

A month after the premier visits Washington, there is a chance that Obama will come to Jerusalem to participate in the "Tomorrow" conference, held under the auspices of President Shimon Peres. If so, Obama, too, will speak, whether at that event or in the Knesset, but his remarks about the diplomatic process will be addressed to Netanyahu. This "Jerusalem speech" will make it clear just how far Obama intends to go to establish a Palestinian state, to end Israel's occupation in the territories and to eliminate the settlements, which he has called illegitimate.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Emil Salman.

Now the two leaders are probably thinking about what to say: Will their message be resolute and sharp - or the usual prattle about "the special and unbreakable relationship" between America and Israel? Will there be a diplomatic action plan or a lovers' embrace that will help Obama, as he embarks on his re-election campaign, and Netanyahu, in the face of pressures at home.

The prime minister is afraid of the unpredictable Obama, who has helped boot out Hosni Mubarak and is bombing Muammar Gadhafi. At the top of the political pyramid in Jerusalem they see the U.S. president as a hostile element, who, were it not for his political constraints, would likely join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. In fact, there is considerable evidence supporting this view - for example, the administration's explanation for vetoing the UN resolution condemning the settlements: It revealed that there was agreement in principle with the resolution, and only reservations about the procedures involved.

Plus there was a recent piece in The Economist saying that Obama had asked British Prime Minister David Cameron and other leaders to evince toughness toward Israel (the White House has denied this ). And also, Obama's remarks before American Jewish leaders about two weeks ago, to the effect that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is serious and Netanyahu is not, were quoted this week in The Washington Post.

Israel's prime minister, meanwhile, is busy with his "Iran is Libya" campaign, calling for the West to threaten Iran with attack if it continues to pursue its nuclear program. Maybe in the future this will serve as a justification for an Israeli attack (along the lines of: "We suggested that you attack and you refused, so we didn't have any alternative" ). But Iran, with all its importance, is less pressing than the Palestinian problem.

Netanyahu is looking ahead to September, when the Palestinians will appeal to the UN with a request for recognition of their independent state. The U.S. government has promised Israel, according to a highly placed diplomatic source, that it will thwart such a move in the Security Council. But at that point the issue would be passed over to the General Assembly, which can pass "a resolution with teeth," and it will recognize Palestine and treat every action by Israel in PA territory as a violation of the law, which it will punish with sanctions and other measures.

Failed cliche

Now Netanyahu is brooding over the question of what message to present in Washington to head off the threat of internationalization of the conflict, and the imposition of a settlement. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has suggested that he promise an Israeli withdrawal in stages from the West Bank, a phased evacuation of settlements that are beyond the security fence and a partitioning of Jerusalem. Were the Palestinians to reject such a proposal, as is to be expected, Israel would look reasonable, something that would enable America to continue supporting it. Barak is afraid that saying no to Obama will undermine American support for Israel - and lead to a diplomatic catastrophe, if not an international boycott.

Stepping up against Barak is his rival, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who visited Washington last week. The former chief of staff thinks Israel must not offer withdrawals and concessions again, and that it needs to come up with an alternative to the failed cliche of "territory for peace." In his view, Netanyahu, in his speech, must say, first, that the political process requires Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Next, there must be a commitment to end the conflict and to make no further demands, and an acceptance of specific security arrangements. Only after the demands are met is there any point in talking about territorial compromise. In Ya'alon's view, Israel must stand its ground instead of appearing weak by making fruitless attempts to placate the world with withdrawals.

While in his actions Netanyahu is leaning toward Ya'alon's position, in recent speeches he has effected an intermediate approach, stressing the importance of Israeli control over the Jordan Valley and prevention of the emergence of an "Iranian terror base" in the West Bank. But he is not managing to market this message beyond Fox News. His threat that Israel will take "unilateral measures" in response to the declaration of a Palestinian state is not deterring anyone in the meantime.

Obama, too, is mulling over his foray to Jerusalem: whether to make it a campaign trip, which would balance out the visits here by his Republican rivals, or to use it to present a peace plan. Supporters on the left, like J Street, are calling for him to present the outline of such an arrangement. However, more centrist figures in the Democratic Party - among them, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. John Kerry - believe the time is not ripe for a presidential peace initiative. Kerry visited Jerusalem last week and warned Netanyahu that international pressure is getting the upper hand. He proposed that Israel make gestures to the Palestinians - such as transferring more territory to their control - in order to block the unilateral declaration of a state.

The cogitation will continue, if it is not truncated by an unanticipated escalation in hostilities. Meanwhile, Netanyahu and the heads of Hamas have succeeded in putting out the fire of the past two weeks. Israel made it clear it wants a strong and responsible Hamas that can rein in the shooting of rockets by the Islamic Jihad. Instead of calling for the toppling of the Islamic movement, Israel hopes that it will impose discipline on Gaza and prevent "anarchy" (as GOC Southern Command Tal Russo called it ) there.

Netanyahu is saying the relative calm is a result of his threats of a strong Israeli reaction, which have deterred Hamas. But in reality, in Gaza, Israel is adopting the same "Nasrallah doctrine" it has employed in the north, which is based on a preference for a hostile and strong neighbor that controls developments in the field, over militias and gangs that do whatever they want without having to take responsibility for their actions.

For now, the quiet that has apparently returned is enabling Netanyahu and Obama to prepare for their "speech duel," which will be conducted in two rounds: on Capitol Hill and in Jerusalem.