Obama's thinking is based on a dual assessment:
a. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially a territorial dispute between two national movements claiming sovereignty over the same piece of land. Long years of violent struggle between the two national movements led to a very high level of hostility and suspicion between them. Such disputes can eventually be solved. The solution would require good will on both sides, using creative thinking. Its implementation would have to be extended over years. Finally, it will need to be backed by international involvement, politically and economically, to ease the pain of the parties' mutual concessions necessary to formulate an agreement.
b. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a central factor to ensure the stability of the Middle East and strengthen the U.S. position within it. Its solution would lead to dramatic and positive changes in the situation in the Middle East and perhaps beyond it.
Netanyahu is adopting a completely different view. His view is based on the following assumptions:
a. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an outcome of a lack of willingness by the Palestinians to recognize the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. All other disputes, including the territorial ones, stem directly from this Palestinian position. Therefore, Israeli concessions, as has been proved more than once in the past, would not promote a peace settlement. It would only enhance the Palestinian "appetite" to demand more Israeli withdrawals.
b. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one of a wide range of conflicts and crises in the Middle East. This region is fundamentally unstable. Even an Israeli-Palestinian dramatic reconciliation will not substantially change this state of affairs.
Against such oppo sing world views, and probably the lack of "chemistry" on a personal level, it is not surpris ing that the last meeting between the two men seemed like a duel between two warriors.
As things seem now it is clear that the main loser from this "fight" is the peace process, which apparently will remain under standstill for another quite long period of time.
The President's remarks made it clear that his administration works toward a comprehensive settlement as the only option in the context of the peace process. This approach blocks the idea of an interim agreement. It is difficult to understand the logic of this position. The experience of the past two years and those that preceded them, should have taught the President that even if there is good will of both Israel and the Palestinians the chances to realize a comprehensive political settlement between the two sides in the foreseeable future, is very low.
Until a few months ago, the option of an interim agreement seemed very realistic given the current situation. For many it seemed dangerous to leave the parties with only one alternative: a comprehensive agreement or lack of it. Such an alternative may lead the parties to a violent confrontation whose results are difficult to predict.
Moreover, the reference by the President to the 1967 lines will become a starting point for negotiations on the permanent borders in any dialogue that will be developed between Israel and the Palestinians. Though the President made it clear that his reference to the '67 lines only meant that they are "the basis for negotiations" and not necessarily the permanent borders, it seems quite plausible that from now on the Palestinians will adhere to the '67 lines as the only option which they would be willing to accept. This again would make it very difficult for the Israeli side to approve.
In his speech the President has also changed the "rules of the game," which proceeded throughout decades of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians. The ruling principle throughout years of dialogue was that all issues of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could be dealt with by the parties. However, it was known by the parties that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Now, President Obama presented another route which is considered by many Israelis as basically contradictory to the most vital Israeli interests. According to this course, at the first stage Israel and the Palestinians will deal only with the subject of borders and security arrangements. After this would be agreed upon it would become an irreversible settlement. Only then would the parties proceed to the next stage namely discussions over two other vital issues, the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. It is clear that no Israeli government can accept such a course of dialogue. Here again we are faced with quite a big obstacle towards peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In his speech the President has further made it clear that Israel should not be expected to enter into a dialogue with the Palestinian Authority as long as Hamas is part of the Palestinian government. This will only be possible if and when Hamas will accept the three conditions presented to him by the Quartet. a.) Renunciation of terror, b.) Recognition of Israel's right to exist and c.) The acceptance of a previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. As things look now it seems highly unlikely that Hamas would be willing to accept these conditions.
And finally, Netanyahu's visit to Washington seems to have changed considerably the "balance of power" between him and the Obama administration. Following his meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu stood in front of the President and the entire world media and without hesitation stated that Israel can not accept the idea regarding the "67 lines". The overwhelming support that Netanyahu received by Congress has, most likely, decreased the President's maneuvering ability regarding Israel and his capacity to exert pressure on Netanyahu's government. The fact that President Obama could not get the approval of the G8 states to adopt his ideas with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian settlement (because of a determined Canadian opposition) might lead the President to the conclusion that his positions with regard to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement might not enjoy world wide support.
Under these circumstances we can not ignore voices of different groups and personnel in the U.S. administration calling the President to refrain from further intensive involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These voices base their call upon the assessment that under the present circumstances an intensive U.S. involvement would in fact be more harmful to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
We do not assume that President Obama would be willing to substantially lower his personal, almost obsessive, occupation with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However, when we look realistically at the huge gaps between the parties and the decreasing U.S. ability to exert pressure on both sides, we tend to the conclusion that in the foreseeable future the stalemate that existed until now with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would further prevail.
*Professor Zaki Shalom is a senior researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel, Ben-Gurion University and a member of the research staff at the Institute for National Security Studies.