If you’ve read the commentary in the media about today’s summit meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama, you are no doubt expecting a tense encounter between two leaders with fundamentally divergent views of what needs to be done in the Middle East. But the truth is that much of this analysis is mistaken because it overstates the purported differences and underestimates the fundamental strategic interests that both countries still very much share.
Anyone familiar with the region today can see that, more than at any previous time, the United States and Israel share a number of strategic goals, given the serious dangers that are spreading across the entire region: Pakistan’s deterioration, Iran’s accelerating nuclear progress and the continuing activities of such radical Islamist groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq and even, recently, in Egypt. The region is not quite in a state of meltdown, but the signs of destabilization are evident, requiring more coordination and cooperation between these two historic allies.
Take, for example, the issue of Iran. The Obama administration has declared that it is launching a new policy of “engagement” with the Islamic republic. But regardless of whether high-level U.S.-Iranian negotiations eventually ensue, Obama also has stated repeatedly that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would be a “game changer” that must be opposed. What is ultimately most important is that both the U.S. and Israel share the fundamental strategic goal of halting Iran’s program to develop nuclear weapons.
The issue of Iran also has raised the question of whether there should be any “linkage” between the resolution of the Palestinian issue and the struggle against a nuclear Iran. Israeli officials imply a connection between the two when they note that a nuclear Iran would undercut any future peace settlement by emboldening its surrogates (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) across the Middle East. In Washington, some have suggested a policy of overt linkage; they say that the emergence of a coalition effort against Iran can occur only if Israel advances on the Palestinian issue first.
But the Obama administration is already finding that even Arab leaders in the region want movement on the Iranian issue quickly. Just last week, Jeffrey D. Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that fears about Iran have become “the key development” across the Middle East: “When you traveled around the [Middle East] five, six, seven years ago, almost everywhere you went, the first thing that came up was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. Feltman then added: “When you travel around today, what you are going to hear about is Iran.”
What about the “two-state solution,” which the Obama administration has said it supports? Will that be an enormous sticking point?
The reality is that although Netanyahu has not embraced this formula, he has stated that Israel does not want to rule over the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He has added that he wants the Palestinians to have all the power necessary to rule themselves, but none of the power to undermine the security of Israel. What that means is that if a Palestinian state were to arise, it would have to be demilitarized and could not sign defense pacts with, say, Iran, allowing it to receive a contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (as Lebanon did in 1982). Instead of waiting for such a situation to arise, Netanyahu is addressing this issue up front.
On this point there have not been major differences between Jerusalem and Washington in the past. The U.S. has always understood that Israel has real security concerns in any future peace settlement over the disputed West Bank and the Gaza Strip. President George W. Bush came out for a Palestinian state in 2002, but in an April 14, 2004, letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the U.S. clarified that Israel was not expected to fully withdraw to the pre-1967 lines in the future but rather had a right to “defensible borders” so that it could “defend itself, by itself.”
The letter also backed Israeli control of the West Bank’s airspace, pending an agreement on any alternative. After all, the West Bank is only 5.9 miles from Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Bush’s letter to Sharon was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities of the U.S. House of Representatives (407 to 9) and the U.S. Senate (95 to 3) in June 2004. In fact, President Obama adopted the language of “defensible borders” for Israel when he was a candidate, during his June 4, 2008, address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In short, regardless of its public positions on the matter, the U.S. has acknowledged that Israel would be within its rights to seek certain limitations on any future Palestinian state in order to protect its security.
The U.S. and Israel, like any other close allies, bring to their relationship their own unique perceptions that should not be papered over. Both countries are led by new governments, each with its own predispositions. Nonetheless, the reality on the ground is likely to create a convergence in the policies of the two governments, as long as they pursue the strategic goals that they both have begun to outline and that they clearly share.