Thursday, 21 February 2013

Barack and Bibi, older and wiser

Benjamin Netanyahu has been remarkably unfortunate. On the three occasions that events have propelled him to the premiership in Israel, he has had a Democratic president in the White House to deal with - and let's be honest about it, Bibi is a born Republican.

Back in the 1990s Netanyahu's relationship with Bill Clinton was a disaster. The two men never got on. After meeting him for the first time, Clinton is reported as remarking: "He thinks he is the superpower, and we are here to do whatever he requires." One of Clinton's aides categorised Netanyahu's performance in the White House as "nearly insufferable". And later, in 2000, Netanyahu was vehemently opposed to Clinton's Camp David peace initiative during which the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat, appeared to come close to an agreement that would have given a sovereign Palestinian state by far the greater part of the West Bank, and also east Jerusalem as a capital.

Following Barack Obama’s spectacular appearance in the White House as America’s first black president, Netanyahu again found himself prime minister of Israel. But he was heading a fragile coalition, held together through the support of right wing religious parties unyielding in their support for the settler movement and the indivisibility of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, under pressure from Obama, Bibi succeeded in persuading his Cabinet to agree to his formally supporting the two-state solution and, in November 2009, to vote in favour of a ten-month freeze on construction in the West Bank.

If anyone had hoped that Netanyahu had learned a little more by way of diplomatic niceties in the intervening decade-and-a-half, however, there was little sign of it. When he and Barack Obama met in person in March 2010, there was certainly no meeting of minds. Hours of discussion between the two failed to result in an agreed media statement, and Netanyahu postponed his return to Israel by an extra day in the hope of achieving some form of common position. He and the President spoke long and earnestly; Israeli officials had discussions with their opposite numbers, but a common position on building in east Jerusalem could not be hammered out.

Now history seems to have offered the two men a second chance. President Obama is back in the White House just starting his second term, while Netanyahu is in the process of hammering out a new coalition government following the recent general election. Nothing is certain in politics, but it seems a pretty fair bet that he will indeed soon be heading a new Israeli government. Obama’s visit has been mooted as taking place on March 20; Bibi has until March 16 to construct his coalition and present it to the Knesset for a vote of confidence.

Assuming the meeting takes place, both men will indeed be older. Will they be wiser?

Take Netanyahu. The recent general election will have shown him that Israel’s heart is not in extreme right-wing policies, either domestically or in the foreign arena. The surprise element in the result – the emergence of the moderate Yesh Atid party with the second largest number of seats in the new Knesset − is a clear signal that the Israeli public would not dissent from re-opening peace negotiations with the PA. The “painful concessions” that might have to be made in any overall agreement – not possible in Netanyahu’s previous coalition with its heavy dependence on right wing and religious parties − now again emerge as possible shots in Israel’s armoury. Curiously, Netanyahu will come to his discussion with Obama, at least about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, strengthened, not weakened, by the loss of Likud-Beytanu seats.

And President Obama, what has he learned over the past four years? Well, his initial “let’s try it” approach at wooing the Muslim world – worth a try, perhaps, coming from the first US President with a Black Power background − proved a disastrous failure. Iran could not be deflected from its determination to develop nuclear weaponry, Syria dissolved into civil war well before a US ambassador could present himself at the court of President Assad, and poor Mahmoud Abbas was hedged into a corner by the Obama administration’s early and repeated demands on Israel to stop all settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Once that demand had been made by the US President, there was no wriggle-room left for the PA President. He could scarcely ask for less. As a result, the “peace process” has been frozen solid for more than two years.

One other lesson perhaps learned since the glory days following Obama’s first election, is that the great central issue worrying the leaders of the Arab world – those, that is, not more directly concerned with the spill-over of the Arab Spring into their territories − is not the Israel-Palestine dispute. It is, as the mass of Wikileaks documents released into the public domain in 2010 revealed, their deep-seated fear of a nuclear-armed Iran. Many Arab leaders – especially, perhaps, in the Gulf states − view Iran’s bid for leadership of the Muslim world, to say nothing of its covert operations to achieve that aim, with alarm.

Older and wiser as they both now are, is there a chance that more mature and considered counsels will prevail when, and if, Barack and Bibi do meet next month? We need a meeting of hearts and of minds. Co-ordination both of intention and execution could achieve positive results in the two main areas they have to discuss: when and how to call a genuine halt to Iran’s aggressive nuclear capabilities, and when and how to start a genuine process leading to a final settlement of the festering Israel-Palestine dispute.

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