Decoding Obama and Netanyahu

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Are they really at odds? To see the answer, you have to read between the lines.

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It's all in the code. The words themselves don't mean much. And therein lies a lot of misunderstanding over whether President Obama really broke new ground on Mideast peace this week, or whether he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu truly disagree.

The conventional wisdom is that there are bitter differences between Obama and Netanyahu stemming from the president's brand-new proposal. Indeed, in a remarkable colloquy at a White House photo op on Friday, a day after Obama's landmark speech, the president and the prime minister appeared to be almost negotiating in public, further roiling an already tense relationship. Netanyahu effectively rebuked Obama for suggesting that talks with the Palestinians should be based on the 1967 borders, or that the Palestinian refugee issue can be kept separate from the issues of "territory and security," as the president suggested.

Obama, for his part, appeared eager to assuage Netanyahu's concerns. In his own remarks to reporters at the photo op, he emphasized that "a true peace can only occur if the final resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats."

That, too, was code for: The actual '67 borders don't mean much, and we really don't disagree all that much. Both sides know that huge Israeli settlements in the West Bank that amount to mini-cities will be part of any permanent solution, if that comes, and always be part of Israel. There is no chance the Israelis will simply withdraw from the West Bank as they did from Gaza. When Obama declared that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps," he went further than any U.S. president had before. But he didn't go any further than some Israeli leaders have gone dating back to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000.

Similarly, Obama's attempt to set aside the refugee issue was tentative, at best, and Netanyahu slapped it down. But there was not much new here. The prime minister said that resolving the question of whether to allow Palestinian refugees to return to land within Israel was integral to a settlement of "territory and security." When it comes to a full "right of return," which is the most important issue to Palestinians, "everybody knows it's not going to happen," Netanyahu said. "I think it's time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it's not going to happen."

In truth, they've long since been told. As Bill Clinton revealed after his presidency, it was the late Yasser Arafat's inability to stomach his own negotiators' critical concession on "right of return" that destroyed the talks. Arafat continued to demand that large numbers of Palestinian refugees, mainly from the 1967 and 1948 wars, be allowed to return -- numbers that Clinton said both of them knew were unacceptable to the Israelis. The negotiations ended in failure. That was why, when Arafat called Clinton in January 2001, three days before the president left office, and told him, "You are a great man," Clinton responded: "The hell I am. I'm a colossal failure, and you made me one."

Indeed, perhaps the most notable thing about Obama's remarks on Thursday was what he didn't say. The president made no reference to a settlement freeze, which had been his key demand to the Israelis over the last two years. Obama also declined to point to any practical way forward in talks, at least as long as Hamas is negotiating reconciliation with Fatah. "There was no action plan or deadline in what he said," says Rob Malley, a former U.S. government Mideast negotiator.

All of which means that Obama's disagreements with Netanyahu -- who is notorious for his delay tactics -- may not be not very substantial after all.

Image credit: Jim Young/Reuters

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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