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Iran May Prove Divisive Issue As Obama, Netanyahu Meet

  • Andrew Tully

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (right, with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell) knows his "political lifeline" depends on U.S. goodwill.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (right, with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell) knows his "political lifeline" depends on U.S. goodwill.

WASHINGTON -- When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, there will be public handshakes and smiles. But in private, the two leaders will have to face their differences on how to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama embraces the so-called two-state solution of Israel and a Palestinian state coexisting side by side. This is a goal that Netanyahu hasn't publicly endorsed.

And while both sides view Iran as the region's key threat, it is not clear they will agree on what policy to adopt in dealing with Tehran.

Netanyahu has a reputation as a hard-line hawk when it comes to making concessions to anyone he deems a threat to Israel. Can Obama somehow persuade Netanyahu to narrow their differences?

Probably not by much, says Murhaf Jouejati, a native of Syria and professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University in Washington. Jouejati cites what he calls "coolness" between the Israeli leader during his previous term as Israeli prime minister and the White House of Bill Clinton 11 years ago.

Still, Jouejati says, Netanyahu also is likely aware that politically he probably can't risk a major public disagreement with Washington. "The Israeli body politic cannot stand for an Israeli prime minister who alienates Washington," he says. "So Netanyahu understands that he will be in some political trouble if he does not get his act together."

Diplomatic Track On Iran

One of the central issues up for discussion at the White House meeting is Iran. Netanyahu aides have said the prime minister is keen to use his time with Obama to discuss ways to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms and becoming what officials in Jerusalem have termed an "existential" threat to Israeli security.

Israeli leaders have not ruled out the possibility of using military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. But the Obama administration has indicated it prefers to pursue a diplomatic track, and has asked Israel for time to pursue a nonmilitary approach to dealings with Tehran.

The United States has traditionally been seen as an avowed supporter of Israel, and the current hesitation of the Obama administration has raised worries in Jerusalem. CIA Director Leon Panetta recently flew to Israel to clarify in talks with Netanyahu how long the United States would pursue its diplomatic track, and how it would measure its success.

Israel has said it will not take military action without consulting Washington, but has indicated it will give the United States only a year, approximately, to try out its diplomatic approach.

Two-State Solution

The divisions between the United States and Israel extend to a Middle East peace settlement. The United States, as it reaches out to Iran, has attempted to persuade Israel to hold talks with the Palestinians and take steps toward normalizing ties with its Arab neighbors.

So far, however, Netanyahu has refused to endorse the two-state solution the United States favors with the Palestinians, and has shown little interest in opening up to Israel's Arab neighbors.

Anthony Cordesman, however, sees more flexibility in Netanyahu. Cordesman is a former State Department and Pentagon intelligence analyst who now studies security and international affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based policy-research center.

In a written analysis issued on May 15, Cordesman says no one should assume that Netanyahu "cannot be persuaded to accept a meaningful peace," perhaps even the two-state solution.

By pressing for a Palestinian state during Netanyahu's visit, Cordesman says, and by meaningfully urging Israel to lighten its own pressure on Palestinians, Obama may make tangible progress, even if he risks open disagreement during the prime minister's stay.

At the same time, Cordesman says Obama must be simultaneously prepared to bring similar pressure on the Palestinians to address their own failings in governance and corruption, which have led to a split -- and at times open warfare -- between the Hamas and Fatah factions.

Regional Actors

Jouejati agrees that the Palestinian leadership needs reform, but that the Palestinians shouldn't be hearing this from the Americans as they did, for example, during the term of Obama's predecessor, in which Bush refused to deal with Hamas and openly embraced Mahmud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Now, Jouejati says, Obama should step aside on this issue and leave it up to others in the region to talk reform to the Palestinians:

"About the only thing he [Obama] can do is to encourage the Egyptian actor to continue in the mediation talks between Hamas and Fatah so that the two can arrive at a national unity government. Now he, of course, is not going to settle the intra-Palestinian crisis," Jouejati says. "But there are those local actors like the Egyptians -- and, incidentally, like the Syrians -- who are in a good position to be able to mediate between Fatah and Hamas."

Jouejati also says Syria may prove a useful partner for the United States and Israel in dealing with Iran. Netanyahu doesn't support this approach, but Jouejati says this is the best way to help neutralize any Iranian threat to Israel and other threats as well.

"If there is progress on the Syrian-Israeli track -- and there is no reason [for there] not to be progress -- that would extricate Syria from the Iranian-Syrian alliance," Jouejati says. "And that, in the end, would isolate Iran and weaken nonstate actors such as Hizballah and Hamas."

This indirect approach through Syria is preferable, Jouejati says, arguing that directly confronting Iran would only galvanize what he calls "an anti-Israeli, anti-American front" in the broader Middle East.

Cordesman agrees that an outright strike on Iran -- as Israel is threatening -- would inflame anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world, and do little to eliminate security threats in the region.

He writes that the Obama administration should send a message to Netanyahu warning against any air strikes -- while at the same time letting Iran know that, as Cordesman writes, Iran "cannot deploy nuclear-armed missiles without having U.S. nuclear forces targeted on Iran."