When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets President
Barack Obama at the White House on May 18, two major issues will
dominate their agenda:
- How to revive stagnant Arab-Israeli peace negotiations;
- How to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons.
On both issues, the hawkish Netanyahu and the liberal Obama are
likely to have major differences of opinion. But these differences
can and will be bridged--if the Obama Administration takes a
patient approach to resolving the complex and vexing issues related
to the Arab-Israeli conflict and focuses on the more pressing issue
of Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. After all, the worst possible
outcome for U.S. policy would be to rush to failure by mounting a
premature push for Arab-Israeli peace when conditions are not ripe
for a negotiated resolution, while engaging Iran in a risky
diplomatic dialogue that could allow Tehran to buy time to reach
its nuclear goal.
Giving Peace a Chance
Prime Minister Netanyahu arrives in Washington after Jordan's
King Abdullah and before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who
meets Obama on May 26 and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas on May 28. After this flurry of high-level meetings, the
Obama Administration, in coordination with the other members of the
Quartet (Russia, the EU, and the United Nations), is expected to
unveil a new framework for future Arab-Israeli peace talks.
As it fashions its peace plan, the Obama Administration must be
realistic and reject the siren song of advocates calling for rapid
progress toward a risky comprehensive settlement that would
undermine Israeli security with few safeguards against continued
The simple truth is that the current situation is not ripe for a
successful diplomatic push for peace--as demonstrated by the
stalemated negotiations following the 2007 Annapolis conference.
Palestinians remain bitterly divided, polarized by a bloody power
struggle between the radical Islamists of Hamas and the discredited
Palestinian Authority of President Abbas, which was defeated by
Hamas in the 2006 elections and expelled from Gaza by a Hamas coup
Hamas, which is armed and supported by Iran, rejects the
possibility of a genuine peace with Israel and is well-positioned,
in collaboration with Hezbollah (another Iranian-supported
terrorist group, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006), to
torpedo any peace agreement. Any Palestinian state created in the
near future would soon be taken over by Hamas, supported by Iran.
This situation provides ample support for Netanyahu's contention
that there can be little progress toward a genuine peace until Iran
has been defanged.
Prime Minister Netanyahu's refusal to endorse a two-state
solution mandating Palestinian statehood is also understandable
under current circumstances. It would be suicidal for Israel to
permit Hamas to gain control over expanded territory, given the
group's history of transforming Gaza into a base for launching
indiscriminate rocket attacks (including many provided by Iran)
against Israeli civilians after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Until Hamas has been discredited and defeated or chooses to abandon
its hate-filled ideology--which is extremely unlikely--a two-state
solution would be a formula for endless conflict, not a genuine
Developing a Common Understanding
At their first meeting, President Obama and Prime Minister
Netanyahu should begin to develop a common understanding of how to
approach negotiations that seek to reconcile Israel's security
needs with Palestinian demands for statehood.
This means that there must be ironclad guarantees that a
Palestinian state would not become a terrorist entity. That will be
impossible as long as Hamas, which remains implacably committed to
destroying Israel, retains its stranglehold on Gaza and continues
to threaten the weak Palestinian Authority.
Rather than press Netanyahu to accept a Palestinian state that
would soon become a terrorist stronghold, President Obama should
focus on securing the international cooperation necessary to break
Hamas's stranglehold on power. This would entail continuing efforts
to isolate Hamas, denying it foreign support and Iranian arms, and
building up the economy of the West Bank to underscore the benefits
of accepting the possibility of peaceful coexistence with Israel.
Only after Hamas is deposed will conditions be ripe for the
development of a new Palestinian leadership--one that is willing
and able to negotiate a sustainable peace with Israel.
The Obama Administration should maintain the Bush
Administration's position that Palestinian statehood is possible
only after responsible Palestinian leaders emerge to:
- Halt terrorism,
- Uproot the terrorist infrastructure,
- End incitement against Israelis, and
- Make a credible commitment to peaceful coexistence with
Instead of seeking to burst through the diplomatic logjam by
promising the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state,
Washington should establish a framework for step-by-step
negotiations that will help to build trust between Israelis and
Palestinians. Such trust will be essential as both sides wrestle
with thorny final status issues such as borders, security
arrangements, the status of East Jerusalem, the status of Israeli
settlements in the West Bank, and the future of Palestinian
These issues will require protracted negotiations. Taking risky
diplomatic shortcuts that would establish a Palestinian state
before its leaders are capable of preventing it from reverting to
terrorism will only weaken the long-term prospects for a
Defusing Iran's Ticking Time Bomb
Iran's nuclear program is the most urgent issue for Israel and
should be for the U.S. as well--given that the world's foremost
state sponsor of terrorism could soon acquire the world's most
terrifying weapon. Time is running out on U.S. efforts to halt
Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. Iran is reportedly making rapid
progress and could very well obtain a nuclear weapon in the next
year or two.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is concerned that the Obama
Administration will paint itself into a corner by entering into
endless diplomatic talks that allow Tehran to "run out the clock"
while it finishes work on a nuclear weapon. A key issue for
Monday's meeting, therefore, will be setting an acceptable
timeframe for any such talks, including the fixing of a hard
deadline for concrete results, after which there will be a
reevaluation of the U.S. engagement strategy.
Given the bellicose statements of Iranian leaders, Iran's long
history of supporting terrorism, and Iran's lavish support for
Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel is understandably concerned about the
expanded threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The Obama Administration
reportedly dispatched CIA Director Leon Panetta recently to warn
the new Israeli government against surprising Washington with a
preventive strike against Iran's nuclear program.
The Netanyahu government is likely to refrain from launching
such a strike as long as there is a hope that Iran can be
diplomatically diverted from its nuclear goal. But if the Obama
Administration's diplomatic efforts fail to dissuade Iran from
continuing on its nuclear path, then Netanyahu, a former commando,
is unlikely to shrink from bold action to defend Israel from an
Preventing the emergence of an Iranian nuclear threat--rather
than kick-starting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that will take
years to bear fruit--should be the highest immediate priority for
building a peaceful Middle East. Consequently, the Iranian nuclear
threat is the most urgent issue on which Prime Minister Netanyahu
and President Obama should focus in their upcoming meeting.
Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies,
a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.