WASHINGTON - Let's start at the end. The duel of speeches between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended in a draw. Each stuck to his guns. And most important, nothing happened on the ground. The peace process was not renewed, and the Israelis and Palestinians are continuing their mad dash toward a third intifada.
The Palestinians will continue their initiative to obtain UN recognition for an independent state come September. The Americans will keep working to soften and weaken the wording of the resolution, so that it will not be binding. Netanyahu will go on preparing the Israeli public for a confrontation. "It was a war speech, not a peace speech," an Israeli diplomat said of Netanyahu's warmly received appearance before a joint session of Congress.
Obama and Netanyahu agree Israel is facing existential danger as a Jewish, democratic state. But each offers an opposing appraisal and therefore a radically different solution than the other. Obama believes Israel will have trouble surviving if it keeps holding on to the territories, expanding settlements and suppressing the Palestinians. Ultimately, Israel will find itself facing a Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, weapons that can crack its defensive shields and the harsh hatred of the Arab masses. That threatening combination will vanquish the Jewish state.
That is hard talk. Obama reiterated this scenario in his two speeches - at the State Department last Thursday and at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference this past Sunday. No other U.S. president has expressed more concern for Israel's future. Get out of the territories and you will gain life, Obama is saying.
Netanyahu sees this as nonsense; he believes Obama does not understand the Middle East. The prime minister is convinced Israel will be destroyed if it withdraws from the territories. He believes his mission is to face the international pressure and foil the plot to remove the Israel Defense Forces and the settlers from the West Bank and replace them with a Palestinian state. Netanyahu knows this message cannot be sold to the world today, so he is proposing painful compromises that will never be made.
He is not the only one to blame. The Palestinian leadership rejected more detailed and more generous offers from his predecessors, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and is refusing even to talk to Netanyahu. So, instead of making an effort to lure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with a more generous offer, Netanyahu prefers to persuade Congress, which is of course a lot easier. You don't even have to show them maps. All you need is splendid English rhetoric.
The Arab revolutions have only deepened the dispute between Netanyahu and Obama. The demonstrators in Egypt, Yemen and Syria remind Obama of the American civil rights movement. He believes history is on their side, that the Middle East masses will smash the tyrannies and win political power and civil rights. America will set an example for them and be a beacon of liberty and democracy.
To Israeli ears, this vision sounds like an aging hippie's drug-riddled hallucination. Every Israeli cabinet minister, official, expert and intelligence authority who visited Washington in recent months has warned his or her American interlocutors that Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are lurking behind the demonstrators. Israel is being suffocated by the Islamic octopus, which is closing in on it from all sides. Turkey is already lost. Egypt, Syria and Jordan shortly will become Iranian clones. Netanyahu believes that in the face of this threat the only recourse is entrenchment, and that any concession will bring the whole wall tumbling down. Israel must batten down the hatches and wait for the ugly wave to pass.
Neither leader persuaded the other of the error of his ways. The public spat only sharpened the focus on the deep rift between the Prime Minister's Bureau and the White House. Even Netanyahu admitted that coordination with the United States needs improvement. The problem is that it's difficult to tighten coordination between leaders with opposing political interests. Both Netanyahu and Obama are getting ready for elections. Every campaign kicks off with a return to the candidate's electoral base. It's only later, shortly before the polling stations open, that there is a shift toward the center in an attempt to appeal to undecided voters.
Netanyahu is now fighting Avigdor Lieberman for leadership of the Israeli right. A few months ago, Netanyahu seemed to be reeling under his foreign minister's humiliations. The media played up his pleasure trips abroad with his wife, Sara. The visit to Capitol Hill and the public disagreement with Obama have returned him to the leadership.
Obama, for his part, also needed the quarrel with Netanyahu, though more for external than for domestic reasons. After his failure to get a construction freeze in the settlements, he wanted to show his pals in Europe that he is not afraid of the Jewish lobby or of Netanyahu. So he looked for a message that would be taken as moderate pressure on Israel.
The U.S. administration's working assumption was and remains that there is no chance at this time to renew the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; certainly not before the UN General Assembly meeting in September, when the fateful vote will take place. For the political process to be resumed, a political change is required: the collapse of Israel's right-wing coalition or of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement. Until that happens, there is no point even trying. That is why Obama has not appointed a successor to mediator George Mitchell and has not declared any practical steps aimed at reviving the moribund process.
Glimmer of hope
The only thing Netanyahu said that stirred a glimmer of hope in Washington came out in his meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. I could make some unpopular moves, but then I would lose my coalition, Netanyahu told Biden. Was he hinting at new elections or at replacing Avigdor Lieberman with Tzipi Livni in order to allow a peace process to take place? Or was he just making an excuse for not budging?
The Americans respect Netanyahu's political clout and are not gambling on Kadima as a substitute. Livni, who also happened to be in Washington this week, got a meeting with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. That's not how you go about cultivating an alternative.
Instead of intervening in Israeli politics, Obama chose to propose a new blueprint for negotiations: the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed territorial swaps and a deferral of the discussion about Jerusalem and the refugees. That was the gist of the part of his speech, given at the State Department last Thursday, that dealt with Israel-Palestine. In response, Netanyahu released a blunt statement of revulsion at the message.
The Americans were surprised. The impression they had gleaned from the prime minister's messengers to Washington - President Shimon Peres and Netanyahu's adviser Yitzhak Molcho - was that Netanyahu would reservedly welcome the president's idea of "1967 plus swaps" and might even privately agree to Obama's formula during his visit to the Oval Office. But Netanyahu continued on his offensive, lecturing Obama on Jewish suffering in front of the cameras.
Reinforced by the leaders of the Jewish organizations, Netanyahu launched talks to get the president's message softened. Molcho was shunted aside; Netanyahu's political adviser Ron Dermer conducted the give-and-take with the White House. Obama agreed to "clarify" his position on the 1967 lines and to sharpen his tone regarding Hamas, but refused to declare that the Palestinian refugees could not return to Israel. You have received enthusiastic presidential support for a Jewish state, so be satisfied with that, American officials told Netanyahu's aides; if we give you something on the refugees, we will have to give the Palestinians a quid-pro-quo in Jerusalem.
The new understanding was the basis for Obama's speech to the AIPAC conference, and it enabled Netanyahu to claim that his firm reaction softened the president. Netanyahu does not regret his aggressive, immediate response to Obama's first speech. He thinks he knows what to say, and when. He responded with restrained praise to the president's second speech, and the White House responded in kind to his speech to Congress.
Netanyahu had a dual political mission in Washington. First, to rebuff pressure to negotiate with the Palestinian unity government. In this he succeeded. It wasn't especially hard: Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's public lament for the death of Osama Bin Laden ensured that no serious member of the administration of Congress would support dialogue with Hamas. Second, Netanyahu wanted to take as firm a stance as possible ahead of the negotiations over the UN resolution in September. He therefore presented a stack of nos, wrapped in a promise that Israel would be the first to recognize Palestine if Abbas abandons his partnership with Hamas and recognizes Israel as the Jewish state. Abbas will not surrender to that dictate quickly, but Netanyahu is signaling that they have something to talk about. Four months is an eternity in diplomacy.
The tension and effort of that show for Congress was visible when Netanyahu met with the Israeli correspondents three hours afterward. He believes the effort was worthwhile and the result bears historic significance. As he sees it, the representatives of the American people endorsed his approach, including his demand that the Palestinians recognize "the state of the Jewish people" and his refusal to withdraw to the 1967 lines.
The collision between Netanyahu and Obama has been deferred for a few months, until the Palestinian move in the UN, or the third intifada, or both. It's only then - maybe - that the moment for decisions will arrive. Netanyahu wants to come to that moment with the Israeli public, the coalition and the American political leadership standing with him, in case he has to take action and not just make speeches.