Obama, Netanyahu Out of Step With the Peace Beat

JERUSALEM – What led the Middle East hit parade this week was less the chords struck harmoniously at the White House Tuesday by two deft diplomatic dancers than the slick dance routine performed by a squad of Israeli soldiers patrolling the streets of the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron.

Israeli Television collated scores of reports by news channels worldwide about the YouTube clip titled Batallion 50 Rock the Hebron Casbah

During the Muslim call to prayer heard in the background, six soldiers in full battle-gear break into a rendering of the hit song "Tik Tok." Hand-in-hand, they dance in pairs before smoothly skipping back into patrol mode. Not amused, the Israeli army threatens to discipline the dancing soldiers. 

With the clip stealing the show on the eve of his much-anticipated fifth encounter with U.S. President Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, was probably not amused either. 

After all, aren’t the streets of Hebron a sobering reminder — especially to his ultra-nationalist flank — of how once before (in his previous premiership in the late ’90s), Netanyahu succumbed to U.S. pressure designed to limit Israel’s control over the occupied West Bank. 

That partial withdrawal from Hebron in 1997 is the only time Netanyahu has made any tangible move to advance peace. 

What Obama wanted to know was precisely whether now, 13 years later, the Israeli leader is ready for another move to help realize the U.S. peace vision. 

After their talks in the Oval Office, Netanyahu declared he intends "concrete steps" in "the coming weeks" to move Israeli-Palestinian peace "further along in a very robust way." 

Obama seemed ready to believe him — or at least, projected the impression that he does. 

"I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace… Now more than ever is the time for us to seize on that vision," Obama said. "We expect the proximity talks to lead to direct talks. I believe the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such direct talks." 

But, the President added, "That’s going to mean some tough choices. And there are going to be times where he and I will have robust discussions about what kind of choices need to be made." 

Both men were at pains to demonstrate that the acrimony that had marked their previous meeting in March was dead and buried. Statements were well- rehearsed, well synchronized, nothing seemingly out of step in a way that had recently led the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, to describe U.S.-Israeli relations as having undergone a "tectonic shift." 

No strident notes. Equally, no specific reference to the need for Netanyahu to extend his self-proclaimed partial settlement freeze, no fixed time-table for realizing the vision of the two-state solution, and nothing about recently announced disruptive Israeli settlement forays into occupied East Jerusalem. 

Iran’s nuclear challenge was on the table. But beyond generalities about Israel’s security, what the two leaders didn’t spell out was what each expects the other to deliver: Obama to act against Iran, Netanyahu to curb the settlements and reach a full arrangement about the future of the West Bank. 

Some, like Aluf Benn, the Haaretz diplomatic correspondent, refer to this as some sort of grand bargain: "This deal, foiling Iran’s nuclearization in exchange for stopping the settlements, has been on the agenda since both were elected. Each knows what the other wants, but is trying to lower the price. 

"Now that Obama has made his move on the Iranian front, it’s Netanyahu’s turn to give something on the Palestinian front," Benn wrote. 

For all the big words and big commitments, the Palestinians believe Netanyahu is still falling far short of striking the right notes needed to advance the final U.S. peace score. 

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told IPS bluntly, "Netanyahu must choose between settlements and peace. We want to resume direct negotiations, but the problem is that the land supposed to be a Palestinian state is being eaten up by settlements." 

That was highlighted by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, which in a new report issued Tuesday revealed that settlements now control nearly half of all West Bank land. 

Also Tuesday, the New York Times produced fresh evidence about how, quietly but resolutely, evangelical Christian groups in the U.S. are entrenching the settlers, using tax-exempt donations. 

The Times identifies public records in the U.S. and Israel which reveal that at least 40 such groups have collected over 200 million dollars in tax-deductible gifts over the past decade for settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

"The result is a surprising juxtaposition," the Times commented. "As the U.S. government seeks to end the four-decade Jewish settlement enterprise and foster a Palestinian state, the U.S. Treasury helps sustain the settlements on donations to support them." 

For all these discordant reports, Obama may have agreed to give Netanyahu some months leeway before taxing him with the "tough choices" he’d made a point of mentioning in their joint news conference. 

But, is the President actually leading the dance? 

Having enjoyed for the first time the Obama White House, Netanyahu may feel free to use the rest of the summer interlude (his 10-month settlement moratorium concludes at the end of September) to change partners. 

And, to find the right kind of steps to keep his domestic partners on the far Right from straying from him.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.