With all the normal caveats — we don’t know what was said in private, etc. — there are a few takeaways from the just-concluded news conference.
1. It was noteworthy that Obama explicitly affirmed in his opening remarks that Israel and the United States share “national security interests [and] our strategic interests.” One of the worst aspects of the recent drama was the inference by administration officials that Israeli and U.S. strategic interests were diverging or even in conflict. It wasn’t very long ago that President Obama was saying that the Israeli-Arab conflict is costing American “blood and treasure.” For now, at least, the administration is avoiding such rhetoric and instead emphasizing the traditional features of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
2. At least publicly, Obama appears to be trying to put the nuclear non-proliferation treaty controversy to bed. As reported a long time ago by Eli Lake, and then finally over the weekend (finally) by the New York Times, the administration has been following what could be called a policy of strategic ambiguity regarding Israeli nukes. After apparently promising the Israelis he would not do so, Obama recently endorsed the goal of a nuclear-free Middle East, raising the prospect — it’s a little mind-blowing to think about it — that Israel’s nukes, rather than the Iranian nuclear program, would become a focal point of international attention. Today, Obama said the following in an obvious attempt to repair the damage and reassure the Israelis:
I reiterated to the Prime Minister that there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues [of Israel and the NPT]. … We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against it, that Israel has unique security requirements. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region…the U.S. will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.
The test will be what the administration does about all of this when its nuclear conference takes place.
3. Regarding the peace process: for starters, Obama endorsed Netanyahu as a partner for peace (yes, the president has set a very low standard): “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace, I think he’s willing to take risks for peace. … I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared to do so.” More important, he endorsed the commencement of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks before the settlement freeze expires in September. This is not a small issue. The Israelis want to move beyond proximity talks for several reasons, primarily because proximity talks prevent the Palestinians’ bluff from being called. So long as the administration plays the role of mediator, the peace process remains focused on settlements and Israel rather than Palestinian intransigence, incitement, etc.
There is no expectation that the Palestinians are prepared to make the big moves that would allow something like a two-state solution to happen; in fact, the Palestinians aren’t even prepared to make the small ones. Over the weekend, it was leaked to an Israeli paper that Mahmoud Abbas had agreed that Israel should maintain control over the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The next day, Saeb Erekat announced that nothing of the sort had been offered. To anyone who follows the “peace process,” this is a familiar Palestinian dance.
And it is a dance that the proximity talks keep hidden. Move to direct talks, and the Palestinian position — rejectionism, inflexibility, political fractiousness, and paralysis — will come into stark relief. The fact that Obama endorsed moving to direct talks this summer should make Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad very nervous.
4. There was no mention of the Turkish demand that Obama ask Israel to apologize over the flotilla ambush. Presumably, Obama was wise enough to realize that this is something he should just stay out of.
5. All of this is smart politics for Obama. His hostility toward Israel over the past year and a half earned him nothing and alienated many of his Jewish and pro-Israel supporters. Obviously Obama would like this entire issue to move to the back burner in the run-up to the midterms.