Netanyahu and Obama Don't Need Love to Advance Peace

Just days before Netanyahu's trip to Washington, and it's still not clear if he's going to meet the president.

Immediately after the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem this Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take off on his third trip to the U.S. since his return to power.

Netanyahu is going to participate in the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly conference in Washington D.C., but that is not what makes his journey interesting:

Two days before his departure Netanyahu has yet to schedule a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Both leaders will be speaking at the conference, but if nothing changes over the weekend, their paths will not cross.

Is this a diplomatic insult? American discontent with Israel? Or perhaps Obama simply dislikes Netanyahu? Nonsense, says the Prime Minister's Office.

The prime minister has not scheduled a meeting with the president simply because of protocol constraints, says the PMO; the two could not agree on a location: Would Netanyahu receive an invitation to the White House, or would he meet Obama at the conference? Would he be received as an official guest, as prime minister, or as a representative of the Jewish community coming to lobby the president?

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon also visited the American Jewish community ahead of the disengagement from Gaza, and did not meet with then-U.S. President George Bush, the PMO added.

The two leaders met several weeks prior to that and were not inclined to schedule another meeting at such close proximity to the one before. Besides, the lower ranking officials can be left to talk shop, such as Sharon's Dov Weisglas and Netanyahu's Uzi Arad.

Not a bad explanation, but there are countable differences between the two prime ministers. Before his "Jewish" journey, Sharon visited the Bush ranch in Texas, and his joint Range Rover ride with the president through his herds and groves signified the peak of their close relationship.

Netanyahu's last meeting with Obama at the UN General Assembly in New York expressed everything but a close relationship.

The president rebuked both the prime minister and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for dragging out the renewal of peace negotiations, and warned them that his patience is running low.

One meeting with the president, or just a semi-meeting, and Netanyahu managed to break an ancient convention in Israeli politics.

It was once believed here that the Israeli public loves nothing more than the demonstration of a close and personal relationship with America and that there is nothing worse for a prime minster than a conflict with the White House.

Former premier Yitzhak Shamir was removed from power after his brawl with George Bush, Sr., Netanyahu struggled to complete his previous cadency due to his alienation from Bill Clinton, and now there's a revolution: Obama is cold and distant, and Netanyahu is peaking in the polls.

After seven months in power, Netanyahu's popularity resembles that of Sharon's, the coalition is calm, the borders are quiet, and the economy is on the rise.

His first foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan University and his support of a two state solution have even placed Netanyahu in the center. He may have burned in his first round, but the new Netanyahu avoids entering conflicts with the "elites" and power hubs.

He gave in to the IDF's demands not to investigate Operation Cast Lead and he is stalling on the decision of splitting the position of the attorney general - it's not a pressing issue.

Last week he scored himself an important diplomatic victory regarding peace negotiations: The U.S. government backed down from its hopes for quick and immediate talks with the Palestinians, and are now talking about "baby steps" that will lead to talks in the future.

Several weeks ago, Washington voiced hope for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the next two years. Now, they are accepting the Israeli attitude that there is no rush for such an entity.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Netanyahu last Saturday in Jerusalem, and publicly praised his "unprecedented" offer to moderate the settlement construction.

The Israelis present at the meeting were impressed with her sharpness and familiarity with the details, while the Arab world was furious with her response. How is it possible, they asked, that the U.S. government dropped its prior demand for a complete and unilateral freeze of all Israeli settlement building?

It is unclear whether Clinton intended to praise Netanyahu, or just made a public slip of the tongue. Nevertheless the event cost her a week of explanations with her Arab counterparts, while Jerusalem celebrated the reversal of positions: Netanyahu desires - he's practically begging - to renew the peace talks.

He explained to the Americans that he is ready politically to advance a peace treaty with the Palestinians and that he believes in his ability to achieve a treaty, while Abbas rejects the talks and won't let go of his preconditions.

Top Israeli officials carefully estimate that the talks will be delayed to Obama's second cadency. America has an economic crisis on its hands, terrible unemployment rates, terror in Pakistan, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. lacks the energy and ability to advance an Israeli-Palestinian accord right now, let alone getting it signed. They can make some effort, perhaps even return to the deliberating table, with the knowledge that nothing will come of it. And the line with Syria is completely blocked, as the Americans are extremely disappointed with Assad.

Those who fear Israel's future in face of a status quo stasis in the West Bank, and hope for a diplomatic agreement on territorial division that will save Zionism from the demographic threat, will view the current situation as a disaster.

But to his supporters, Netanyahu emerged from it like a wizard: He's keeping both the West Bank and the coalition, calming down the dispute with the Americans and portraying the Palestinians as the insubordinate party. What more can you ask from a rightist government?

What's wrong? Israeli officials notice two mistakes made by the Obama administration. The first a miscalculation that American pressure would push Netanyahu out of power, or at least force him to alter the coalition. But instead Netanyahu has only gotten stronger.

The second mistake was the U.S.' stated demand to freeze the settlements without previously checking the feasibility of such a requirement.

In Jerusalem, officials say U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell enticed the Palestinians to bind themselves to this unreasonable requirement - a complete settlement freeze as a prerequisite for negotiations - and instead of advancing the talks, he lodged a stick in their wheel.

Netanyahu insisted on maintaining the understandings that his predecessors, Sharon and Ehud Olmert, reached with the Bush administration on supervised settlement construction.

The Obama administration was reticent but eventually accepted the Israeli position, while complaining about the illegitimacy of settlements.

From Israel, Obama looks to be inexperienced in diplomacy, but he also comes across as an involved leader who understands politics and power relations.

His government understands that Netanyahu is currently strong and cannot be overtaken. Jerusalem attributes the U.S. change of attitude regarding Israel to Denis Ross, who recently joined the White House staff and is indispensable to every Middle East debate.

Mitchell, who is less friendly toward Israel, and has so far failed at restarting the negotiations, is losing his power. Obama is dwindling in the polls and is losing the support of the American Jewish community, while their support of Israel is at a historical peak.

America is not just the president, Netanyahu reminds his advisers, but a vast country with several power cores.

This does not mean that Obama and his advisers have suddenly fallen head over heals in love with Netanyahu.

The White House is cultivating the "alternative" pro-Israel lobby J Street, which is supposed to strengthen Obama's support amongst the Jewish communities as opposed to the traditional Jewish lobbies identified with Netanyahu.

Obama sent his national security adviser, Jim Jones, to the J Street conference last week, while Israel refused to send its own ambassador, Michael Oren.

This is a clear sign that relations may not be as sweet as can be, but associates of Netanyahu say all is not lost.

Netanyahu and Obama may not become the best of friends and lovers, but the president can and must see our prime minister as a partner.

Together, they can accomplish big things - even without the love. And if the two do end up meeting in Washington next week, they will have the chance to start over on a fresh new page.