A hallmark of U.S. President Barack Obama's approach to Israel has been to confront Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly about areas of disagreement almost every time they meet. The headlines are always about settlements, occupied territory in Jerusalem, restraining Bibi on Iran, and pushing Israel on borders. Obama's theory seems to be that you have to show daylight with Israel to get progress on peace and win friends in the Muslim world.
But what if the president tried the opposite approach? He could begin by using his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference this coming Sunday, March 4, to build trust and win the confidence of the Israeli government as a foundation for future diplomatic cooperation. What could Obama do to set a new tone? Here are four ideas.
1. Obama should sharpen the message his administration is sending to Iran. Netanyahu believes recent comments by senior U.S. officials cautioning Israel against striking Iranian nuclear sites have reassured the Iranians and encouraged them to press ahead with their nuclear program. Particularly disturbing were remarks by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who referred to the Iranian government as a "rational actor" and said an attack by Israel would be "destabilizing" and "not prudent." To restore credibility to the threat that "all options are on the table," what if Obama repeats this weekend the exact words Senator Obama said at the AIPAC conference in June 2008, during his presidential campaign: "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything." Hearing those words from a sitting president would be hard to ignore.
2. For more than three years, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to sit down with the Israeli prime minister for serious top-level peace talks. In taking this position, Abbas is openly violating the solemn pledge he made in November 2007 in front of the foreign ministers of 47 countries at the Annapolis peace conference. There he said: "We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations … [and to] engage in vigorous, ongoing, and continuous negotiations." Abbas is now ignoring the core commitment his predecessor Yasir Arafat made to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993: "The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process … and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations." And he is defying the Middle East Quartet's appeal of March 2010, which called for "the resumption, without preconditions, of direct bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues as previously agreed by the parties." On more than 13 occasions, Obama and his top officials have publicly rebuked Netanyahu on points of disagreement. Not once has any Obama official similarly remonstrated with Abbas. This Sunday is an opportunity for Obama to restore some balance in how he assigns blame for the sorry state of the peace process. It is time to single out Abbas's refusal to negotiate with Israel.