Previous meetings between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have been the occasion for some crises and embarrassments over the issue of settlements and East Jerusalem. This time, at the upcoming meeting, both sides want to finally have a good meeting, to be able to provide a hug and smiling photo-op. Netanyahu needs this in order to rebuild his reputation from the low level it has fallen in the world following the flotilla debacle; Obama needs this (or his advisors believe he needs it) to shore up Jewish support for Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections.
But for all that both would love a meeting un-tinged by any hint on conflict or controversy, two controversial agenda items are already known -- the upcoming expiration of the 10-month moratorium in settlement construction (September 26th), and the demand for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
So what will this meeting look like? Of course we don't know. Netanyahu will do his best not to publish any of the controversy that might come up, and he will probably say that he haven't decided yet what's his plan for September. But here is an advance peek at the transcripts of what the meeting might look like. Scenario A -- Netanyahu the peacemaker.
Netanyahu to Obama: "Mr. President, I have decided that we must not miss this opportunity to achieve peace with the current Palestinian leadership, and that we should give the talks a chance, and therefore, I am going to extend the moratorium in settlement construction for another 12 months."
If you sensed a cynical smile on my face as I wrote this scenario, you sensed right. Netanyahu has been trying to avoid any talks with the Palestinians for years. Had he really wanted to give peace a chance, he could have spared the Americans (and the rest of the world) this long and tiring process of pressuring Israel to move forward, begging Israel to freeze settlements, and the parallel deterioration in Israel's status in the world. However, it's never too late to make good decisions. While it is hard to imagine, it is possible that Netanyahu could decide to extend the settlement moratorium and go for real negotiations with the Palestinians.
In this scenario, Netanyahu will be praised by the world, but might receive some backlash back home, especially from his own party, the Likud. However, his coalition appears to be as strong as ever. Just like on the eve of the moratorium, the right-wing members of his coalition (Yisrael Beiteinu, the Jewish Home party and Shas) know very well that the moment they leave the coalition over the settlements issue, the Kadima party will be happy to save Netanyahu and they will be left out, with no influence and no jobs. Scenario B -- Netanyahu the hardliner.
Netanyahu to Obama: "Mr. President, I did my best. We gave peace a chance but the Palestinians weren't interested. We stopped all new construction in settlements, we removed some checkpoints and (after two crises with you) we even got Jerusalem under control for a while. But for the Palestinians this wasn't enough. They wouldn't come to direct talks and the "proximity talks" only prove that they are not serious about peace. I am sorry sir, but we can't extend the moratorium."
This is, of course, a much more believable scenario, since it is consistent with the rhetoric and excuse-making we have heard from Netanyahu from day 1. This scenario would also be nothing less than a slap in the face of President Obama. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the biggest obstacles for the success of the Obama's foreign policy. In order to succeed in Iraq, Afghanistan and with Iran he must make progress on this troubling conflict -- a conflict that is preventing the formation of the coalition of the moderates against the fundamentalists in the region. A decision by Israel to renew construction in settlements would actually mean that Israel had turned its back on peace. It would be a clear statement: with the current government in Israel, there will be no talks and no peace.
Although President Obama needs a good meeting with Netanyahu, at least for the photo-op, it is unlikely that he will let Netanyahu get away with it so easily. Netanyahu should be almost crazy to bring such a declaration to Washington. Scenario C -- Netanyahu the bargainer.
Netanyahu to Obama: "Mr. President, you know how much Israel wants peace. We were ready to go very far in order to reach peace and this is why I declared the 10 month moratorium in settlements. However, we see that the Palestinians still refuse to engage in direct talks. Despite that, we still believe that we should give another chance for peace, and we will extend the moratorium for another 12 months. However, you must understand that we cannot continue to prevent ALL kind of works in settlements. People live there and they deserve normal life. Therefore, we have decided that the moratorium will continue but we will allow construction for natural growth and in the settlement blocks."
This is, of course, the most plausible scenario of all. And here is where we say as loud as we can: caution President Obama, it's a trap! You are already experienced with those kinds of excuses. Israel have been promising to freeze the settlement activity for years, but instead allowed it to continue using many kinds of excuses, deceptions and exceptions. Beware: with this approach Netanyahu thinks he can have it both ways -- he thinks he can claim to be a peacemaker while in practice acting like a hardliner, He thinks that he can avoid all the negative consequences of Scenarios A & B, and to avoid having to face the moment of truth of September.
In this scenario, while claiming to be leader committed to peace, he will try to re-open the discussion over the terms and conditions for the talks (what should or should not be built in settlements) and avoid the real final status talks on the core issues. And Netanyahu knows well that there will be those who will advise the president not to touch the issue of Israel before the elections.
But unfortunately, if the president doesn't call this bluff -- if he doesn't make clear that he isn't buying this deception -- it might lead to the end of his efforts for a new dynamics in the region. The Palestinian leadership cannot engage with Israel while construction in settlements continues (and still maintain any credibility). Every brick laid in the settlements or in East Jerusalem undermines the Palestinian partner, and sends the message to the Palestinian public that whatever they do - if they talk to the Israelis or they don't, if they reject violence or not - they get more settlements. The okay given to Abbas by the Arab league will expire in September, and if there's any change in the moratorium it clearly will not be renewed. This would mean, like in Scenario B, the end of the peace talks with the current government of Israel, and deterioration in the situation on the ground -- a situation that is already very tense. And a fourth Scenario -- the Palestinian surprise
There is another possibility, not so much expected, that might serve as a game-changer: the Palestinians might declare that they are ready to start the direct talks right now, with no conditions. In this case, Netanyahu will be left with no excuses for his refusal to extend the moratorium. He will be forced into the talks -- or, if he refuses talks or refuses to extend the moratorium (which will end the talks) he will find himself isolated in the world and blamed for refusing to make peace.
Unfortunately, with such low confidence between the two sides, it is hard to believe that the Palestinians would do such a thing. However, it seems that they are trying to do anything they can in order to convey the message, to the Israelis and to the world, that they are ready for peace. Abbas gave interviews in the Israeli media and declared his readiness for far-reaching concessions. A few days ago he was quoted for the first time declaring that he was ready to allow for Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall (which is not only holy for Jews but is actually a wall of the Haram A-Sharif) and over the Jewish quarter in the Old City.
If this scenario takes place, Netanyahu will be exposed and there will be a real moment of truth. Either Scenario A, implausible as it seems, will come to pass. Or if not, the world will find itself facing Scenario B or C -- and all the terrible consequence they imply for the peace process, for President Obama's foreign policy, and for Israel's reputation in the world.
Co-authored by Lara Friedman