Great atmospherics

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The Obama-Netanyahu meeting in Washington last week was an elegant exercise in short-term realpolitik. Very short-term.

US President Barack Obama needs urgently to project an image of tranquility, friendship and cooperation in his relationship with Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu. This helps his administration ensure the support of a variety of pro-Israel sectors of American society as mid-term congressional elections approach. It also seeks to correct the impression that Obama has simply mismanaged his relations with Netanyahu and Israel and fumbled the peace process from the start.

Netanyahu, after a series of problematic meetings with Obama and against the backdrop of prolonged failure in the peace process, needs to demonstrate to the Israeli public that he is maintaining a high level of traditional Israeli-American friendship and strategic cooperation. He knows from personal experience (the 1999 elections) that Israel’s citizenry will punish any leader suspected of undermining US support. He also presumably understands that the specter of American pique with his government is bad for Israel’s deterrence posture.

The two leaders confront two deadlines of immediate relevance. First comes September 27, when the current settlement-construction freeze ends. Washington wants to find a formula to make that deadline irrelevant by moving Israel and the PLO into direct final-status talks whose momentum overshadows whatever gestures Netanyahu must make to his right-wing coalition. This requires a series of confidence-building measures on Israel’s part, involving territory and security in the West Bank–enough ostensibly to assuage fears on the part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lest he be maneuvered into pointless negotiations that he cannot defend against criticism from within his own Fateh party. Second is November 2, election day in the US, after which–whatever the results–Obama will regain greater freedom of maneuver regarding Israel.

An additional deadline of less urgent but more important relevance concerns Iran’s possible emergence as a nuclear power. Netanyahu asked for and received from Obama assurances regarding Israel’s military freedom of action and American support for Israel’s independent nuclear status. He presumably "paid" in commitments to advance the peace process through confidence-building measures and the like. Only time will tell whether either side’s commitments last beyond September and November.

Perhaps the most tell-tale indication of the problematic nature of the two leaders’ relationship even after last week’s meeting was the body language. As their White House press conference began, Netanyahu leaned far forward, elbows on knees, in what looked like a characteristic gesture of submission. Obama, for his part, leaned as far away from Netanyahu as possible, arms crossed, demonstrating both disdain and defensiveness. After a few minutes, both caught themselves and assumed more conventional poses. But the careful observer could not avoid the impression that their one-on-one conversation had in no way created a genuinely positive relationship–despite the words of praise and admiration they heaped on one another.

Then there was what went unsaid. In opting for direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at an early date, Washington as much as admitted that proximity talks had failed. Publicly, settlements and the settlement freeze were never mentioned. Nor were the administration’s abortive efforts to bring Israel into peace talks with Syria.

Just days later, Netanyahu confronts the suspicions of a majority of his hawkish "Cabinet of Seven" in seeking approval for a relaxation of Israel’s security operations in the West Bank in favor of Palestinian Authority security forces. Obama must still convince Abbas to move to direct talks. Netanyahu has somehow to finesse an uneventful complete or partial end to the settlement freeze. Further afield, tension on Israel’s border with Lebanon continues, as do attempts to send additional aid flotillas to Gaza. And the US is supposed to proceed with its withdrawal from Iraq next month despite the absence of a government there and the possible negative consequences for regional stability.

In short, the atmospherics in Washington were positive, but realities on the ground in the Middle East could make us forget this summit meeting very quickly.

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