Outward warmth, but differences divide Obama, Netanyahu

May 19th, 2009 - 9:32 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Tel Aviv, May 19 (DPA) US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a show of cordiality when they met in Washington which commentators saw as setting the tone for future relations between Tel Aviv and its key ally.
Despite predictions, there was no “blow up” between the two men, possibly, as commentator Brett Stephens noted in the Wall Street Journal, because “the last thing” Netanyahu and Obama need “is to get into a giant contest of wills” this early into their respective administrations.

Only a fly on the wall in the Oval Office during Monday’s lengthy private meeting between the two men knows what really went on, whether the cozy relations which existed under George W. Bush will continue with Obama and Netanyahu at the helm of their respective governments.

But the predictable statements by Obama and Netanyahu after the talks, about the “special relationship” between the two countries, did not manage to disguise the fact that there are now real differences between Washington and Jerusalem.

“The boundaries within which the Israeli government operates have now been drawn,” Israeli analyst Nahum Barnea observed Tuesday morning.

The key differences centre around contrasting approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, and to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Obama made clear the US commitment to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. If he had expected Netanyahu to publicly endorse this position, he was disappointed.

The prime minister would only say that Israel did not want to govern the Palestinians, and that terminology was less important than substance.

However, noted Stephens, Netanyahu’s acceptance of a two-state solution would have major advantages.

“For starters, it defuses a ticking bomb in US-Israel relations,” he said.

In addition, flexibility on the Palestinian issue would give Israel “added leverage with the Americans on the infinitely more consequential matter of Iran’s nuclear programme,” Stephens wrote.

While the US and Israel agree, as Obama said, that an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon would be a threat, they disagree where dealing with the problem should be in the scheme of things.

Israel views Iran as its biggest existential threat, given Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state should be wiped off the map.

For Netanyahu then, Iran is the more urgent problem, one which he thinks should be dealt with before tacking the Palestinian issue. That Tehran funds and arms Palestinian militant groups opposed to any accommodation with Israel only adds to the urgency.

Obama, however, thinks that progress in talks with the Palestinians is the key to getting public Arab support on Iran.

A further potential for a spat between the two countries concerns Obama’s timetable for dealing with Iran. While the president set the end of the year as the deadline for assessing whether talks with Iranian officials are making progress, for Israel this may be too long.

Israel has promised to take no unilateral steps on Iran, but may find itself feeling pressured to do something if it sees that US talks with Tehran get nowhere.

It is not only issues of policy between the two countries which came under scrutiny at Monday’s meeting. Almost equally in the spotlight was the question of how Netanyahu and Obama would relate to each other.

For Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, it was “a meeting of unequals”.

Analyst Ben Caspit, on the other hand, thought that the two men had made “a good connection”.

Writing in the Maariv daily, he noted however that this did not stop Obama from bringing up some sensitive issues.

“There was not one single blister Obama did not step on,” he said, adding that Netanyahu can leave this first meeting “with mixed feelings”.

“True, he was given a shower, but survived to talk about it. Moreover, even cold water eventually warms up, or else you get used to it.”

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