Q. PM Netanyahu meets President Obama today in the White House. What awaits them?
Last week, APN arranged for me to meet with a series of key Middle East policymakers in Washington to discuss the near-term course of US-Israel relations. I came away convinced that Netanyahu will encounter a determined Obama.
Netanyahu should also be aware that Israel 's prestige in Washington has declined considerably and the president feels he has leeway to exercise some pressure. If until now Obama might have hesitated, Netanyahu's behavior in the recent budget crisis in Jerusalem--first introducing a budget laced with heavy cutbacks in welfare support and education, then capitulating to the demands of Histradrut head Ofer Eini to reinstate them--portrayed a weak prime minister who zigzags, panics easily and folds under pressure. If Netanyahu compensates by behaving with characteristic arrogance in the White House, he'll get into deep trouble.
It would be foolish to try to predict the outcome of this meeting. If both leaders stick to their core values, a clash is inevitable, if not in this meeting then in the next. Still, it's not clear whether Obama is prepared already to demand real change in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship or will suffice with atmospherics. Nor do we know whether Netanyahu intends to demonstrate a dramatic policy shift (as Defense Minister Ehud Barak assures us) or will stick to his usual spin. But the setting "going in"--the backdrop to this meeting--is in some ways as relevant as its outcome.
My sense is that Obama is not yet ready with a comprehensive plan of his own for the assorted crises of the Middle East and particularly the Arab-Israel peace process. Indeed, my impression is that he will not present such a plan in his anticipated major address in Egypt on June 4. His work style is first to hear a broad range of opinions, including Netanyahu's, and only then to work out his own policy.
At the top of Obama's agenda for the Netanyahu meeting are Iran and Palestine . Other important issues such as Syria and Gaza will be secondary. Iran is also at the top of Netanyahu's agenda. But in recent weeks, in anticipation of this meeting, he appears to have made a serious tactical error in becoming the first Israeli prime minister to advocate linkage of the Palestinian issue.
For the past four decades, previous Israeli prime ministers resolutely rebuffed efforts by third parties to link a solution to the Palestinian conflict to the broader Israel-Arab conflict or to issues like the absence of democracy in the region. Now Obama's emissaries have informed Netanyahu that the president believes progress toward a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important for his efforts to engage Iran and recruit broad Arab backing for his efforts. Netanyahu has responded by reversing Obama's linkage--he wants progress on Iran before he moves on Palestine . But by accepting the very concept of linkage, Netanyahu may have opened a Pandora's box. Imagine Obama opening their conversation on Iran by stating: "We both agree that Iran and the Palestinian issue are linked. Now let's work out the details. . . "
One way or another, Netanyahu will at least for the time being have to accommodate Obama's approach to engaging Iran . Obama appears likely to accept Netanyahu's request for a clearly defined period of time after which the administration, if unsuccessful in persuading Tehran to at least moderate its nuclear program, will move to heavy sanctions. A number of sources have mentioned this coming October as an agreed deadline. Moreover, a total dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program appears to be beyond the administration's assessment regarding what is feasible; Netanyahu will have to swallow that, too.
Turning to the Palestinian issue, if sufficient administration pressure is exercised, Netanyahu may well agree to work on a settlement freeze, reciprocation for recent Palestinian security achievements and the initiation of serious negotiations. On the other hand, if Netanyahu balks at these US policy directions, it is questionable whether Obama would go so far at this point in time as to precipitate a crisis in relations with Israel that would complicate his already complicated life.
Q. Why has Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas opted to hold the sixth Fateh conference in the West Bank this coming July? Why are many Fateh leaders opposed to this initiative as well as to Abbas' apparent intention to reappoint Salam Fayyad as prime minister?
Abbas was indeed forced last week to postpone the formation of a new government after members of his ruling Fateh faction threatened openly to revolt against him. And he faces opposition from many Fateh members over his decision to convene the movement's long-awaited sixth "general conference" in the West Bank on July 1. Abbas' critics say that holding the parley in the West Bank would mean that hundreds of Fateh members living in various Arab countries would not be able to attend the crucial meeting because of Israeli security restrictions.
Rank and file Fateh opposition to the new government appears to stem primarily from Abbas' reported inclination to reappoint Fayyad, who has registered considerable success in building Palestinian governmental institutions, combating corruption and advancing the deployment of reliable security forces. Fayyad also enjoys the trust of Israel and the international donor community. But Fayyad is not from Fateh, does not appoint Fateh stalwarts to key ministries, and his primacy in the Palestinian government has aroused the ire and jealousy of Fateh members accustomed to patronage positions and favors.
As for the Fateh conference, many of the younger generation of Fateh hope it will be an opportunity to remove aging "dinosaurs" who have been in power since 1965 and to allow new blood to flow through the ranks, thereby restoring Fateh's flagging prestige among the West Bank and Gazan population. It is perhaps for this reason that Abbas, himself one of the founding fathers, has repeatedly postponed the conference since Fateh's 2006 electoral loss to Hamas, which many attribute to Fateh's corruption and internal disarray.
Most recently, both Jordan and Egypt refused to host the conference, perhaps out of concern lest they appear to be taking sides in internal Palestinian disputes. On the other hand, some of Abbas' critics allege that Amman and Cairo were acting at his own request, so he could hold the meeting in the West Bank and exclude many historic Fateh leaders like Farouq Qaddumi (still in fact the titular head of Fateh but not the PLO), who never accepted the Oslo process. Abbas' decision nevertheless to hold the conference, but in the West Bank , will indeed almost certainly mean that activists whom Israel identifies as terrorists will not take part. Moreover, some in the Palestinian diaspora and even in Gaza who cannot attend will undoubtedly interpret the decision as an attempt to disenfranchise them and restrict the scope of Palestinian decision-making to the West Bank alone.
These divisions exacerbate an already surrealistic scene for Palestinians: a geographic separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip against the backdrop of the ideological dispute between Fateh and Hamas, a geopolitical split between the West Bank--the only Palestinian polity recognized by the world--and all other Palestinians, and now the threat of a split within Fateh itself as the ruling party.
Not only Palestinians but Israel and the US , too, need a strong Fateh as the key component of a rejuvenated PLO and as a political and ideological opponent of Hamas. This means that radical reform of the movement is desirable prior to any new elections. Abbas has promised that the Fateh congress will be cancelled if Israel refuses entry to the West Bank to any participant. Israel and the US have a vital interest in Fateh reform.