Tenuous Moves For White House On Israel

Israel's Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks during the 'Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations' in Jerusalem Feb. 16, 2009. AP Photo/Dan Balilty

The "On The Marc" column is written by The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, CBS News' chief political consultant.


The White House confirmed on Tuesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the White House on May 18, followed by the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the next week and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas two days later.

It's tempting too read too much into the order of these visits, but from the perspective of the White House, treating these three visits as one package tells a story about the peace process.

The Israeli press is convinced that President Obama is on the cusp of retreating from the decades-long "special relationship" between the United States and the only functioning Western-style democracy in the Middle East because the new administration views the threat of an Iranian nuclear missile through different lenses than the toughies from the Bush era.

Netanyahu faces impossible politics, internally and externally. Israelis believe that the relationship with the United States is the crown jewel of their diplomacy and one thing that prime ministers can't mess up. Alienating the Clinton administration was one major reason why Netanyahu was voted out of power in 1999.

Flash forward to 2009: the United States believes that Netanyahu's coalition is already fraying, and there's not a whole lot of incentive to deal with a government that might not exist by this time next year. Israel's convoluted political system - which is, it must be said, more fair than anyone else's in the region - ties the hands of prime ministers who don't command respect.

The United States foreign policy establishment's consensus opinion on the Middle East right now is that the solution - a Palestinian state next to an Israeli state - is clear and obvious. The biggest obstacle to reaching it is that Israel's government is more confident that it can delay the inevitable giving up of land, and that the Palestinian government is too weak to negotiate with anyone.

What's more, there are fewer obstacles to peace in Arab world - and more favorable signs coming from its leaders - than at any time in recent memory. The King of Jordan recently proposed a "57-state" solution The King of Jordan is pushing for a comprehensive "57-state" solution - one that would simultaneously solve all of the outstanding problems and would wind up with the complete Arab world's recognition of Israel.

Syria has sent signals through Europe, the United States and directly to Israel that it is ready to talk about everything.

The trouble: it's as if the sense of urgency has been lost -- not by the Arab world or the West - but by the powers that be in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Expect to see the perfunctory - American concern about expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank, aid packages to the Palestinian Authority, mutual expressions of friendship, body language analysis by the cognoscenti.

On the surface, Syria still agitates for control of the Golan Heights; Israeli settlements continue to expand; Hamas and Hezbollah still refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist and still get money and guns from Iran and Syria; racism rises in Israel; water disputes plague the region, etc. etc.

Long-time Israel watchers expect Netanyahu to avoid an explicit endorsement of the two-state solution before an American audience, but they expect him to announce something specific about the resumption of talks with the Palestinian Authority, which were, shall we say, suspended, after last year's war.

Americans who pay only peripheral attention to the Middle East peace process don't realize why Egypt is so important to the implementation of the "two state solution," and without some context, it's not immediately obvious what the United States and Egypt have in common.

One tie that binds Egypt to the United States and Israel is its uncompromising opposition to the Iranian nuclear bomb. Egypt's intelligence agency is one of our best sources about that subject, and about Palestinian radicalism -- and that's one major reason why the Bush and Obama administrations are going out of their way to protect the extent of Egyptian complicity in a variety of controversial U.S. national security programs.

Hamas and Hezbollah threaten Egypt's interests -- its foreign minister recently accused the Shi'ite axis of deliberately stoking the embers of the Mideast conflict. The recent Gaza incursion by Israel led to a flight of refugees across the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt accused Hamas of orchestrating the exodus in order to provoke a border conflict. A week and a half ago, 25 alleged members of Hezbollah were arrested inside Egypt and accused of plotting terrorist attacks.

That's one reason why Mr. Obama plans to speak to Muslims from Egypt in June, even though its democratic institutions are weak. Egypt has historically represented the secular center of the Muslim world. And its interventions could be the key to Middle East peace.
By Marc Ambinder
  • Marc Ambinder

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