Obama-Netanyahu Summit / Obama Must Actively Mediate Between Israel, Palestinians

To show the rules of the game have changed, Obama must demand that Netanyahu carry out his part of a deal he signed with Clinton and Arafat.

As he was setting out for today's summit at the White House, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that although three Israeli prime ministers supported a two-state solution, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued and, if anything, worsened.

Netanyahu better not try this argument with U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama's conduct and the messages sent by his aides demonstrate that the lesson they drew from the failure of the process launched in 1993 is completely different from the lesson Netanyahu learned. Unlike Netanyahu, the U.S. administration does not put the entire blame on the Palestinians. At best (from Netanyahu's perspective), the administration blames both sides equally. Obama should conclude that it would be wrong to waste time seeking a new solution to the conflict. It's much better to look for new ways to implement the old one; that is, to find better means of cajoling and enforcing than those used by previous administrations.

But today's conversation between the two men could produce a much worse outcome: an agreement to set up "task forces" to "prepare the ground to renew negotiations" based on a two-state solution. This would allow the next Israeli prime minister to say that this miserable formula has guided four Israeli prime ministers and three American presidents. If Obama strives to develop mechanisms like the road map, the Annapolis Declaration and task forces, he might go down in history as the American president who put the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo process. The 15 years of "peace process" have served as an alibi to build more than 100 new settlements and outposts, and to enlarge the settler population from 110,000 to nearly 300,000, excluding East Jerusalem.

Even if Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spend the rest of their days negotiating the final settlement, the lack of an active mediator presenting a detailed plan might make Obama's two-state solution turn out very much like George W. Bush's Palestinian-state vision. Without an American leader equipped with both carrots and sticks, the president's initiative will be forgotten, just like the Bush-instigated UN decision to establish a Palestinian state. Without all this, Iran will mock the peace plan sold to Obama by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

To convince both Palestinians and Israelis that the rules of the game have changed, Obama must demand that Netanyahu carry out his part of an agreement he actually signed with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat: the Wye River Memorandum of October 1998. A reminder: At Wye River, Netanyahu promised to change the status of 1 percent of Area C (under Israeli civilian and military control) to Area A (complete Palestinian control), and 12 percent to Area B (Israeli military and Palestinian civilian control). He also committed to resume negotiations immediately on the territories' permanent status, and to avoid any changes to the territories' current status.

Netanyahu will probably claim that his honoring of the agreement was what brought down his first government. But in a book, Netanyahu's cabinet secretary and negotiator Dani Naveh revealed that at the height of the Wye summit, an unpublished survey showed that 46 percent of Jewish Israelis supported Netanyahu, while 37 percent supported Barak (the overall Israeli population was split 41 to 37 in Netanyahu's favor). But despite this support, Netanyahu avoided implementing the agreement, missed a chance to set up a national unity government, bowed down to the radical right, lost the American president's trust and eventually lost the prime minister's chair as well.

According to a recent Haaretz-Dialog poll, most of the population supports an agreement with the Palestinians on a two-state basis. Now, as then, Netanyahu's fate rests in the U.S. president's hands.