Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington for two days of meetings with U.S. and Jewish leaders, is watching with interest how President Barack Obama handles the current crisis in Ukraine.
A consistent and strong response to Russia’s intervention in Crimea will bode well for how the President might be expected to handle Iran should it fail to dismantle its nuclear military capacity as demanded by Israel and Western powers.
At the same time, such a tough approach might also signal that Mr. Obama means it when he says that if Israel is really interested in peace with the Palestinians, it has to make some tough decisions and make them now.
That was the message Mr. Netanyahu received loud and clear in his meeting Monday afternoon with Mr. Obama, during which the President asked the Israeli leader to accept the terms of a framework agreement for peace hammered out by Secretary of State John Kerry over the past eight months.
It also was the message Mr. Netanyahu received even before he landed in the U.S. capital Sunday. In an interview with Bloomberg, Mr. Obama warned of the consequences of what he called Israel’s “continued aggressive settlement construction.”
Harsh words, but as Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported Monday, the number of housing starts in West Bank settlements more than doubled last year, compared to 2012. The 2,534 settlement starts in 2013 was the highest number of starts in a decade.
“There comes a point where you can’t manage this any more, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” Mr. Obama said in the interview. “Do you [Israel] resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? … Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”
If Palestinians believe a Palestinian state is no longer within reach, warned the President, then international reaction in the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions could well grow. In such an event, “our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” he said.
“Israel has been doing its part,” Mr. Netanyahu retorted in his remarks on arriving at the snow-covered White House. “I regret to say the Palestinians haven’t.”
In Washington, it appears that Mr. Obama is playing the bad cop to Mr. Kerry’s conciliatory good cop.
For all the recent criticism levelled against the U.S. Secretary of State by right-wing Israeli politicians, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Kerry have been working together to achieve a breakthrough on a framework agreement that would permit the parties to continue their negotiations past the original April 29 deadline.
Not just officials, but the two men themselves have been engaged in almost daily video-conferences.
(It was apparently during one such conference last week that word came to Mr. Kerry that his daughter had given birth; Mr. Netanyahu was among the first to congratulate him.)
A source close to the Israeli leadership said in an interview Monday the discussions had gone so well that Israel already was in agreement with three of the five areas in the framework: the borders of the Palestinian state (outside Jerusalem), the nature of Israel as a Jewish state and rights of Palestinian refugees. Israel had “largely agreed” with the framework on these matters, said the source who spoke only on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak on the government’s behalf.
By “largely agreed,” it was meant that there were “some reservations” about details, he added.
The parties now are discussing the remaining two areas: provisions for future security and the status of Jerusalem.
The framework must also be agreed to by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is scheduled to meet Mr. Obama on March 17. While the Palestinian leader has given indications of his flexibility on such matters as the right of refugees to return to homes now in Israel and the length of time Israeli soldiers could remain in the Jordan Valley, his approval cannot be taken for granted.
“I also have an opposition, not just Netanyahu,” Mr. Abbas told Zahava Gal-On, Chairwoman of the left wing Israeli Meretz Party on Monday.
“I don’t want to destroy Israel and no refugee will return to Israel without Israel’s consent,” Ms. Gal-On quoted him as saying. “But I expect Israel to provide a quota of refugees it will absorb each year.”