Israel | National

On two states, tensions between Netanyahu and Obama have calmed, for now

The relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here after Obama's arrival in Israel on March 20, 2013, is improving. (Pete Souza/White House)
WASHINGTON (JTA) – Two months after questions about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution threatened to upend the U.S.-Israel relationship, tensions have abated, but not because peace with the Palestinians is any nearer.

There has been no more talk recently from President Barack Obama’s White House about “reevaluating” how the United States approaches defending Israel. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has been enthusiastically embracing the concept of two states in interviews and meetings with foreign dignitaries.

The tamped-down rhetoric is not a product of agreement between the two administrations, observers say, but rather of the looming Iran nuclear deal, expected to be finalized by June 30.

The Obama administration does not want to create further opposition from Israel, and from those in Congress who oppose the deal between Iran and the major world powers. At the same time, Netanyahu wants to ensure the U.S. protections Israel enjoys in international forums — the U.N. Security Council, the International Criminal Court, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review — even as the prime minister leads a government thought to be the most right-wing in decades. (For the first time since the 1993 Oslo accords, the governing coalition does not include a single party that explicitly favors two states.)

“The White House seems determined not to give added ammunition to the critics” of the Iran deal, said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Netanyahu knows the limitation for his government of what is possible,” in terms of reaching out to the Palestinians, “but he wants to avoid exacerbating the fallout.”

Until last year, Makovsky was a member of a U.S. team that attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, already made tense by deep differences over Iran policy and Netanyahu’s speech to Congress slamming the nuclear deal, became fraught on the eve of the March 17 Israeli election, when Netanyahu appeared to back away from the two-state solution, saying he would not allow a Palestinian state on his watch.

Immediately after his reelection, Netanyahu backtracked, saying he meant simply that the region was in too much turmoil for the stability required to underpin Palestinian statehood. But Obama and his officials at the time suggested they could no longer take Netanyahu at his word, and pledged to “reevaluate” how best to defend Israel in international forums.

These days, Netanyahu appears determined to emphasize his two-state credibility, and was as outspoken as he has ever been in endorsing the outcome when he met last week with the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.

“I don’t support a one-state solution — I don’t believe that’s a solution at all,” he told Mogherini. “I support the vision of two states for two peoples — a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, and I look forward to discussing with you how we can advance that vision forth in a practical, secure and responsible way.”

In his appearance with Mogherini, Netanyahu touted his backing for “practical steps” to promote Palestinian stability, such as “economic steps, added measures for reconstruction and development and ensuring ongoing humanitarian support.”

Obama administration officials once insisted that humanitarian economic improvement measures were welcome but inadequate and demanded of Israel serious consideration of diplomatic proposals.

Now, Obama seems resigned to such measures as the best possible way forward for the time being.

“If we can start building some trust around, for example, relieving the humanitarian suffering inside of Gaza and helping the ordinary people in Gaza to recover from the devastation that happened last year; if we can do more to create business opportunities and jobs inside the territories — if we can slowly rebuild that kind of trust, then I continue to believe that the logic of a two-state solution will reassert itself,” Obama told the Saudi-owned news channel, Al Arabiya, on May 15, referring to the Israel-Gaza war of last summer.

The United States and Israel appear to be in crisis management mode for now, said Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. “There appears to be a tacit agreement that real negotiations are not possible in the foreseeable future and you do what you can do to keep things from deteriorating,” he said.

Notably, Obama did not in the Al Arabiya interview use any of the “re” words, like reassess and reevaluate, that had so spooked Israel and the pro-Israel community in March. Nor did the words come up in an interviewwith Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic last week focusing principally on his relationship with Israel, or in Obama’s May 22  speech to a synagogue marking Jewish American Heritage Month. In both the interview and the speech, Obama said he was committed to Israel but added that criticizing Israel when it was at fault was necessary to maintain credibility when he was defending it.

Other measures of good will proffered in recent weeks by the Obama administration include selling $1.8 billion in advanced munitions to Israel, and blocking an effort at the five-year Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review to consider making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Israel opposes any such effort until there is comprehensive peace in the region.

Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the regional players who traditionally nudge the Palestinians toward peace talks are not available, because they are preoccupied with Iran and the Islamist violence wracking the region.

“The traditional camp that delivers the Palestinians to the negotiating table is not in a position to do so,” he said. “I don’t see the Sunni states, the Egyptians, the Saudis, the traditional power brokers, I don’t see them taking up this cause right now.”

But the détente between Obama and Netanyahu on two-state issues may not last longer than it takes to get an Iran deal in place. Notably, around the same time that a deal would kick in, in September, France plans on bringing up at the U.N. Security Council a resolution that would give Israel 18 months notice of Palestinian statehood recognition. Obama administration officials have indicated that they may not block a statehood recognition with a veto.

“The attitude to Netanyahu is ‘You said what you said, now show us.” Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said, referring to the Obama administration. “The things Netanyahu chooses to do and not do between now and then could have an impact.”