In the Oval Office alongside Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Obama promised that he will spend the next year trying to reach a deal with Iran about nuclear weapons. If (surprise, surprise) negotiations go nowhere, at that point the President promises he will think very seriously about what to do next.
A year of talks followed by a promise to think about what to do next if talks fail: Does presidential decision making get tougher than that?
But don't think that Obama is incapable of clarity when he wishes. His Iran policy may be vague, hypothetical and distant, but his Israel policy is clear and firm. He will not tolerate an Israeli attack on Iran (a position his CIA director has now stated publicly) and he wants full steam ahead on a Palestinian state.
This seems a formula for conflict between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. And yet there remain grounds to hope that things will not deteriorate too far, too fast.
- The President is busy. He has a financial crisis on his hands, a collapse in the auto industry, big initiatives on health care and climate change--plus Afghanistan, plus Iraq, plus the suddenly intense controversy over Guantanamo. Does he want a fight with Israel too?
- It's not going to take a year to discover whether negotiations with Iran have any promise. Iran has presidential elections scheduled for June 12. Suppose Ahmadinejad wins re-election? Obama's negotiation hopes will look silly. Obama may wish to back burner Iran and front burner the Palestinians. Iran may not co-operate.
- Obama was wounded by this past week's debate with former vice-president Cheney. Democratic senators have refused to vote the money to close Guantanamo, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has denounced the idea of moving terrorists to U. S. mainland prisons. The last thing the President needs right now is a controversy that could lend credence to accusations that he is soft on terrorism.
- Everybody is always in favour of starting a peace process. Thing only get difficult later. And Obama's own personal negotiating style lays great emphasis on creating an appearance of consensus--an open quarrel with Netanyahu would wreck that illusion. Obama will want to postpone that moment as long as possible.
- Netanyahu, too, will wish to avoid a quarrel with a new and popular U. S. President. We saw in his joint press conference with the President the approach the Israeli Prime Minister will take. Instead of rejecting the peace process, he will declare himself enthusiastically in favour of the process--provided that it includes elements essential to Israeli security, like demilitarization of the Palestinian territories. Netanyahu knows well that an agreement that does not hurt Israel will not win much support among Palestinians.
- The previous point reminds us of the all-purpose lethal impediment to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: the Palestinian leadership. Or as we should now say: leaderships, since Hamas retains control of the de facto separate Palestinian state in Gaza. In 2000 at Camp David--and then with the "road map" of the Bush years--Palestinian leaders found it too risky and dangerous to sign a final agreement ending the dispute with Israel. Is there any reason to imagine that those risks and dangers have now subsided?
Which means that despite the tense body language and cool language at the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, the near future of the U. S.-Israel relationship may look a lot like the immediate past.
Netanyahu seems to understand this very well. On Thursday, speaking in Jerusalem, he bluntly restated a long-standing Israeli position. "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It has always been, will remain so forever and will never be divided." That might seem--should seem--an anodyne thought. Yet it led immediately to a protest from the government of France: A spokesman for the French foreign ministry said yesterday, "In France's eyes, Jerusalem should, within the framework of a negotiated peace deal, become the capital of two states."
Less explicitly, the statement caused ripples in Washington. Somebody has been circulating in Washington what purports to be a draft outline of Obama's forthcoming speech in Cairo. This purported draft calls for the internationalization of Jerusalem. Netanyahu's Thursday speech delivered an immediate and unintimidated Israeli reply. If the relationship is headed for a bumpy patch, this Israeli Prime Minister seems determined to drive right through.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.