A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Here Come the Leaks: The Obama/Netanyahu Meeting

Well, the summit has occurred and the leaks are starting. First, if you haven't seen it yet, here's the White House transcript of the Obama/Netanyahu press conference after the meeting.

Let's start with Aluf Benn at Haaretz. The headline is "Israel Gives Obama Till End of Year on Iran." Okay, the client state is giving ultimatums to the superpower?

Barack Obama's first innovation in the White House is visible even before one enters the Oval Office: a large wooden slide on the lawn for the president's daughters. In the office, Obama put two statues, of former president Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. This is his message - a commitment to liberty, human rights, equality and opportunity. But also to the use of power, when there is no other choice.
Pardon me if I lapse into a "huh?" here. Lincoln certainly used power, but what does MLK have to do with it? Or is he just the liberty and human rights part. And when Benn says "statues" what does he mean? I suspect maybe busts, but perhaps they're small statues.
Obama speaks much more than his predecessor, George W. Bush. He smiles less. When Benjamin Netanyahu spoke, Obama watched him closely. They both prepared note cards before the meeting. Obama's contained long, typed lines; Netanyahu's had short lines in felt-tip pen.
You lost me on that one. Is a felt-tip pen better or worse than typed lines? I tend to use a ballpoint because that's what MEI usually has in the supply cabinet. What does that tell posterity? Or is this just color, and an attempt to show your sources gave you minuscule details? I'd rather know what was on the notecards, frankly, than how they were inscribed.

The rest of the article, actually, pretty much says that the two men said what everyone expected them to say. So I guess the news is the felt tip pens?

The interesting point is that while Haaretz, the left of center paper, emphasizes Netanyahu's "deadline" in its headline, the right of center Jerusalem Post has a different take: "Obama Insists Palestinians Must Have State, Rejects Iran Deadline."

I think what is clear is that Israel and the United States, led by two very different men, are exploring where they go from here. Obama believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem, difficult as it may be, undercuts the threat from Iran: if Syria and Israel find a peaceful solution (and they have come pretty close) then Hizbullah could find itself left high and dry. A real opportunity for a genuine Palestinian state might undercut Hamas' dominance in Gaza, but only if such a deal is clearly on offer.

Israel is overwhelmingly focused on the Iranian threat. It is true that Ahmadinejad (who probably knows less about the actual nuclear program than a dozen other Iranian figures) has indeed made some outlandish statements distracts from the fact that many senior Iranian clerics are a lot more nuanced in what they are saying. And don't forget that even Ahmadinejad haqs said that if the Palestinians choose to make peace with Israel, it's really none of Iran's business. The "existential threats" have been both vague (it's not Iran that's threatening, unless Israel attacks Iran; Iran is saying that there is a historical inevitability that will doom political Zionism) and definitely not directly nuclear, since Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. You don't have to believe any of that (and a healthy skepticism is in order), but the threat is not as explicit or as sinister as some are making it.

Again, I recognize the power of the metaphor Juan Cole raised yesterday, of the 1961 Kennedy-Khrushchev Summit in Vienna, while thinking the parallels don't hold up very well., Israel is not a rival superpower. It is in fact a client state of ours dependent on our biggest aid package. But I also take the positive side of the image: Khrushchev was testing Kennedy's experience and spine, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs. The weakness he thought he saw helped lure him into the adventure of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was a miscalculation of potentially apocalyptic force. Obama and Netanyahu are not going to enjoy the personal relations that George W. Bush apparently was developing with Ariel Sharon before Sharon was stricken.

Juan Cole's piece today sees the meeting as producing few results and as a setback for Likud.

Meanwhile, Marc Lynch offers a tour d'horizon of the Arab press reactions. Generally positive and naturally emphasizing the gap between Obama and Netanyahu.

Netanyahu visits the Hill and the Pentagon today. There will no doubt be a great deal of editorial analysis over the next few days: Obama's position on Israeli-Palestinian peace does represent a new direction and the re-emergence of Netanyahu as Prime Minister sets up a potential tension that makes for dramatic news stories.

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