With the focus of the world on Ukraine and the situation in Crimea, it seemed that Monday’s meeting between President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu would be of considerably less importance. According to Barak Ravid in Ha’aretz, Israeli representatives sent to the White House on Friday “found their interlocutors preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine,” and that events in Eastern Europe will “overshadow the visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House Monday”.
However, a just-published interview with President Obama by Jeffrey Goldberg on BloombergView indicates the exact opposite. In it, President Obama clearly states that he intends to confront Benjamin Netanyahu with an ultimatum: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”
A good question, and one that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has almost certainly internalized already. According to President Obama, Abbas is of “a rare quality not just within the Palestinian territories, but in the Middle East generally”. Netanyahu’s challenge is, of course, much greater than Abbas’. The West Bank cannot be described as a democracy. Abbas, as far as we can tell, has free rein to hold talks. Once an agreement is reached, the hurdles to be overcome are the PLO Central Committee and a referendum. These are not impossible tasks.
Netanyahu’s government must survive these talks, and with a tenuous 68/120 seat majority that includes 12 from the far-right Bayit Yehudi and at least an equal number of radicals in Likud, this will be no easy chore. A new election poses an undesirable threat to the talks themselves. Which brings the question of whether President Obama’s increased involvement in talks that have thus far been conducted in secret is a good thing. I say it is.
With experts like Martin Indyk and David Makovsky by his side, John Kerry has unlikely drawn up a framework that will spark acrimony in the governing coalition. Its most controversial elements will likely be shrouded in technocratic vernacular, and therefore the political costs will be mitigated. The framework will have served its purpose: to extend the talks past the April deadline.
It’s good to see that President Obama has not shifted his focus away from an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. As the president correctly points out in the interview, what precludes greater cooperation in the Middle East is the irresolution of this conflict. Nay, a relic of a conflict.