It is the most fateful encounter of two world leaders since Kennedy met Khrushchev. And Obama absolutely must not allow himself to be cowed or misunderstood as timid by Netanyahu, who is a notorious bully and warmonger. (Bill Clinton complained that Netanyahu when last prime minister thought that he was the superpower). If Obama can cow Netanyahu, his Middle East policy may have a chance. If Netanyahu comes away thinking he can thumb his nose at Washington, the whole Middle East could be in flames by the end of Obama's first term.
The two come to the encounter with starkly different agendas for the Middle East. Obama wants better relations with Iran (which he needs for a clean withdrawal from Iraq and for success in Afghanistan). And Obama wants to be the president who finally established a Palestinian state, implemented a two-state solution, and resolved the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict, which has generated so many wars and so much terrorism and instability. (As I have said before, the key problem in all this is Palestinian statelessness.)
Netanyahu on the other hand wants to attack Iran and attempt to destroy its nuclear enrichment research facilities. And he absolutely does not under any circumstances want a Palestinian state or to be forced to withdraw Israeli squatters from the Palestinian territories that they have been colonizing since 1967 (unlike most of Israel proper, the UN never awarded that territory to Israel, nor has it been recognized implicitly by international treaties, as Egypt's Camp David accords implicitly recognized 1949 Israeli borders.)
Obama, concerned that Israeli sabre-rattling might itself lead to hostilities, sent CIA head Leon Panetta to Israel recently to demand that the Netanyahu government tone down its belligerent rhetoric. Netanyahu maintains that Iran has vowed to destroy Israel, which is not correct. The Iranian government is hostile to Israel and wishes that the Zionist enterprise would collapse the way the Soviet Union or the shah's government did. But it has said that it would accept a two-state solution if that was what the Palestinians wanted. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never threatened to 'wipe Israel off the face of the map,' since there is not even such an idiom in Persian. He was talking about an ideological collapse of a Zionist regime and its occupation of Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest city. Iran has not launched an aggressive war possibly since Karim Khan Zand took Basra in the 1780s.
Netanyahu's plan to attack Iran's nuclear facilities would fail, and would only cause Iran actually to seek nukes, which it is not presently doing according to US intelligence. I like Israelis, but they are understandably traumatized by all the things that have happened to them since the 1930s and have developed an unhealthy hysteria and tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. They were convinced that a US overthrow of Saddam Hussein would change the Middle East in their favor. It has not (Hizbullah in Lebanon has new friends in Baghdad, as does Tehran). Obama must impress on them that the answer to every problem is not a bombing raid. The good thing about having Rahm Emmanuel in the White House is that he will be able to phrase the instruction colorfully enough for it to be understood unambiguously.
An Israeli attack on Iran might well reactivate the Mahdi Army and Badr Corps as anti-American Shiite militias in Iraq- all hell could break loose in that country, leaving Obama's hopes for a withdrawal in tatters. And Iran has many clients in Afghanistan that could be mobilized against NATO-- in fact it could join an effort to keep military materiel from even getting to Afghanistan, leaving NATO forces vulnerable to being cut off and killed.
Netanyahu's talk of improving the economic lives of Palestinians instead of giving them a state is also nonsense. Statelessness prevents economic security and progress. And people aren't just motivated by material things. Palestinians want a concrete manifestation of their national identity, just as everyone else does.
Only a viable Palestinian state resolves this huge decades-long mess in the short to medium term. I think it may be too late but am willing to see what Obama has in mind.
Aljazeera English reports on the Obama-Netanyahu meeting from a pan-Arab point of view.
© 2009 Juan Cole