Netanyahu’s Visit

May 15, 2009 7:43 p.m.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will visit the White House for what is likely be a pivotal first visit with President Obama. Given both parties’ interest in avoiding public disagreement we probably will not get any immediate sense of the substance of their conversations. But the two men, all protestations to the contrary, are on a collision course.

President Obama wants a peace settlement based on a two state solution and he’s signaled through top advisors that he wants a settlement during his first term of office. And Obama, unlike President Bush, actually appears to mean it. Netanyahu wants continued settlement expansion and no Palestinian state. Publicly this is muddled over by claims that he wants to focus on building up the Palestinian economy on the West Bank, as preparation for some possible, maybe autonomy or independence to happen in the never specified and never-to-happen future.

Then there’s the question of Iran. The Netanyahu government has spent its brief time in office aggressively pushing the line that any work on the Palestinian front can’t happen until the threat of the Iranian nuclear program is definitively ended. That has the dual benefit — if the premise is accepted — of forcing the US to shelve its entire approach to Iran, follow the Netanyahu government’s lead and close the door on any work toward a final settlement with the Palestinians.

What it all comes down to is that Obama wants a peace deal and Netanyahu doesn’t. And Netanyahu is making a big push to tie Obama’s hands or get him to back off his policy.

Add to this that Netanyahu has been Prime Minister before. And a very big reason he stopped being Prime Minister the first time is that he got crosswise with the US President — something that amounts to the third rail of Israeli politics. An Israeli PM who can’t successively manage the US-Israel relationship usually can’t last long.

So both men have strong domestic imperatives to limit any appearance of disagreement. But each also wants to follow a policy that is completely in conflict with the one the other wants to pursue. My hunch (and my hope — and hopefully I’m not confusing the two) here is that Obama has many more cards than Netanyahu but that Netanyahu doesn’t fully grasp that and that over time he’ll overplay his hand and find himself out of office like he did a decade ago. But at some point, and probably soon (remember, he’s got the speech in Cairo early next month) Obama will start having to put his own cards on the table and putting clear limits on what he’ll accept.

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