Smiles and Ambiguity

The White House has pulled a 180 with regard to Netanyahu, coddling the prime minister instead of ostracizing him. Are Bibi and Barry now the best of pals, or just engaging in realpolitik?

U.S. President Barack Obama completed a turnaround in his foreign policy this week. Last summer, he tried to be conciliatory with Iran and to pressure Israel. Now he is imposing sanctions on the Iranians and embracing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This about-face has not served to advance Obama's goals so far: Iran is still pursuing its nuclear project and the establishment of a Palestinian state seems as distant as ever. But now the president can tell the international community, "I tried."

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama

The friendly reception accorded Netanyahu in the White House this week showed that the American president understands politics. After the "Ramat Shlomo crisis" during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Jerusalem in March, the White House made a concerted effort to pressure Israel and condemn Netanyahu for "humiliating America." But Congress rallied behind Netanyahu and most of its members called on the president not to engage in a public quarrel with an ally as important as Israel.

Senior figures in the Democratic Party urged Obama to treat Netanyahu well. Instead of the leaks from the White House about lack of trust and bad chemistry, we got Obama talking about "an excellent one-on-one," praise for Netanyahu's speech marking the Fourth of July and, most important, the president's declaration, "I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he's willing to take risks for peace."

With statements like that, Obama can approach Jewish donors and voters ahead of the midterm elections in November and show them that contrary to what they've said about him, he is an avowed supporter of Israel and the prime minister.

The White House is aware of Netanyahu's unprecedented power in his second term as prime minister, with no underling clearly vying for his seat. Yitzhak Rabin had Shimon Peres, Netanyahu had Ariel Sharon and Sharon had Netanyahu, Yitzhak Shamir had a group of hardline ministers and Olmert was sniped at by Tzipi Livni. But no one in Likud poses a threat to Netanyahu's leadership, no one is leaking anything against him and no one is trying to subvert him.

The opposition, too, is weak, diluted and waiting patiently on the threshold of the government without challenging Netanyahu.

Obama and his aides realize that they have to work with Netanyahu. They also know that any political agreement Netanyahu signs will get the sweeping support of 70 to 80 percent of the Israeli public. That recognition helped bring about Washington's transition from bashing to caressing.

Netanyahu did his bit to change the American approach in two ways. He mobilized the pro-Israeli lobby to deflect the administration's pressure and he yielded to Obama's demands whenever the president was insistent. Thus Netanyahu accepted the two-state principle, froze construction in the settlements, quietly blocked building for Jews and demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and eased the Gaza blockade. All these decisions exacted no political price - and that, too, was noticed by the administration.

Obama on weapons control

The question now is where Obama and Netanyahu will pull their shared cart. From the prime minister's point of view, the major achievement of the visit to Washington was getting public presidential backing for Israel's nuclear policy. Since Golda Meir's meeting with Richard Nixon in 1969, all presidents and prime ministers have been committed to a tacit understanding that Israel would cling to its policy of nuclear ambiguity and the United States would protect Israel against demands that it abandon its program.

In the past, these understandings were a deep secret and transmitted from generation to generation orally. Netanyahu asked for and received confirmation of them in writing from former president Bill Clinton in 1998, but the letter was not made public. Now, Obama has declared that weapons control initiatives will not impinge on Israel's security and that only Israel has the right to decide what its security needs are.

Israeli sources say Obama also promised to further civilian nuclear cooperation with Israel, despite the policy of "ambiguity." These assurances were preceded by lengthy negotiations between the national security adviser, Uzi Arad, and his White House counterparts. The immediate motivation for the policy shift was the international conference on nuclear weapons held in May, which ended with a call for Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - in other words, to disable its nuclear capability.

The Obama administration voted in favor of the resolution and since then has been busy making clarifications and apologies to Israel.

But the conference was only the excuse. Israel's nuclear ambiguity is being eroded and is crumbling because of the Iranian nuclear threat. As the experts anticipated, the more threatening Iran looks, the more Israel will aspire toward open deterrence. Obama prefers to publicly reinforce Israel's deterrence, provide it with extensive military assistance and hold more security-coordination meetings, as opposed to having Netanyahu attack Iran.

Did Netanyahu promise that Israel will not launch a preemptive strike if it receives American guarantees for the maintenance of its deterrence? Or does Obama's receptiveness indicate that the Americans have already reconciled themselves to the Iranian bomb and are now putting in place regional security arrangements for once they pass the fail-safe point?

Netanyahu has made the Iranian threat his top priority. Obama chose to open their joint press conference by talking about Gaza and praising Israel for easing the blockade. Maybe he thought it would be better to underline the modest achievement he extracted from the flotilla affair, or maybe he wanted to focus on an issue that is preoccupying world public opinion. The political process with the Palestinians was mentioned only later, and both leaders chose to concentrate on procedure - a quick transition from the indirect talks, which have gone nowhere, to direct talks - rather than on substance, which remains shrouded in fog and in vacuous peace phraseology.

Netanyahu carefully avoided uttering so much as a word deviating from the political right's line, and his comments placed him firmly in the camp of Moshe Ya'alon and Benny Begin. Netanyahu warned that an Israeli withdrawal from the territories was liable to bring terrorism and rockets, as occurred in Gaza. He also called on the Palestinian Authority to alter its school textbooks. He promised only steps on the ground, without elaborating.

In a press briefing, he made it clear that these steps would not include the transfer of parts of Area C to the Palestinians so that they can build a road to their new city of Rawabi, near Ramallah. The settlers are adamantly against the Rawabi project, claiming the city will adversely affect the quality of the environment and their lives - and Netanyahu has the settlers' interests in mind.

If Netanyahu and Obama moved from ambiguity to openness in the nuclear sphere, they maintained total ambiguity in regard to the settlements. Neither of them said what would happen when the construction freeze ends in September, beyond the expectation that by then direct talks will have begun between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The silence is understandable: Anything Netanyahu says now will be used against him. If he promises that the freeze will continue, he will infuriate the settlers and their supporters; if he says construction will resume, he will embarrass his new pal in the White House. The decision will be made and announced only at the last minute - and maybe after. It will be part of a package that includes the direct talks and a few bonuses for the Palestinians on the ground, in return for a thaw in the construction freeze in the big settlement blocs.

Even the most moderate ministers in the forum of seven do not support a total freeze, as the Palestinians are demanding, and will make do with stopping construction in isolated settlements.

But all this talk is about minor matters: direct or indirect talks, whether to continue the freeze and where. It does not bring peace and does not affect the quality of life of the Israeli public, which is totally indifferent to the contacts with Mahmoud Abbas and his aides.

The only political issue Israelis care about is the fate of Gilad Shalit. In this atmosphere, packaging and reception, smiles and body language far outweigh whatever details were discussed in private.