Netanyahu And Obama’s Dueling Speeches

netanyahu obama
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as President Obama speaks

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address today before Congress in many ways mirrored President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech at the State Department May 19.Like Obama, Netanyahu first addressed the issues of Middle East democracy, then Iran (Obama spoke about Middle East economic support instead), and then finally the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both leaders outlined their respective visions of the core elements necessary for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Each discussed Jerusalem, borders, security arrangements, and the steps Palestinians would need to take to best make peace.

But most important, both leaders avoided any clear pathway out of the stalemate that marks the current absence of a peace process. In fact, that pathway is absent from all four major speeches–including each leaders’ speech at the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–over the past week. Both leaders spoke about ultimate negotiating positions, but neither provided concrete ways to overcome the obstacles that have prevented serious negotiations over the past two years.

Policy analysts could scrutinize the Netanyahu speech and find reason for hope as well as disappointment. Those who believe Netanyahu could be a peacemaker could point to his referencing a need for Israel to maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River, which could be reconciled with Obama’s call for a full, yet phased, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Others will point to his call for Jerusalem to be the united capital of Israel and say that this could be reconciled with the Palestinian aspiration for the city to serve as the capital of two states.

Both leaders’ Washington speeches underscore a fundamental reality: They made separate cross-town public addresses within days of each other because there is no real agreement between them privately. Indeed, there is not even a serious dialogue between Israel and the United States (not to mention the Palestinians) over how to realise peace. George Mitchell, America’s peace envoy until May 13, had not even travelled to the region for some five months.

The fundamental problem today is not that the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians disagree about an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement–that is what negotiations are for. It is that the three leaders are so mutually mistrustful that they cannot even bring themselves to engage seriously with one another.

Netanyahu’s pre-departure expression of “expectations” for Obama was driven less by the president’s enunciation of the 1967 line as the basis for a border than the fact that Obama delivered the remarks just before Netanyahu was about to board his plane for Washington with little advance notice.

Even if Netanyahu had wanted to embrace the new Obama vision, he did not have the chance to line up his core political partners to do so. Yet the White House did not want to pre-cook the president’s remarks with an Israeli leader it feared would leak or somehow sabotage them. That construction plans were approved for 1,500 new Israeli housing units on the Palestinian side of the Green Line as the president was delivering his State Department speech only confirmed American suspicions. This mutual absence of trust created a real lost opportunity for the United States and Israel to generate a peace strategy when the two countries’ leaders came together last Friday.

New foundations of trust and new channels of communication are needed for serious diplomacy to resume between American, Israeli, and Palestinian officials. But first, the cardinal rule of partnership–no surprises–needs to be reaffirmed among the parties. Until this principle is reestablished and demonstrated, it will be impossible for the lofty ideals of peace, so artfully articulated in Washington, to be realised in the Middle East.

This post originally appeared at Council on Foreign Relations.