What we know after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Washington visit this week: both the Israeli leader and President Obama have decided that for various reasons it's best not to be quarreling, especially in public. Both have a strong vested interest in restoring the public trappings of the “special” U.S.-Israel relationship.
The problem is what we don't know; the pomp-rich visit leaves us with more questions than answers:
- Did Obama make nice because he plans aggressive new Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, but learned the hard way that he has to convince the Israelis he's on their side?
Or was his charm offensive mostly political, an effort to avert any Israel-related controversy until after the November elections?
And does he still think there is a real opportunity for peace, or has he decided that conditions just aren't right for progress, and that it makes no sense to stake his administration's foreign policy credibility on something that just isn't going to happen? We don't know the answer to that despite the hopeful words coming out of the mouths of both leaders.
- Do Netanyahu's gestures – including the more open talk about a two-state solution and hints of new flexibility on Jerusalem that came in his talk to Conference of Presidents leaders on Wednesday – signal a genuine willingness to engage in the kind of peace process President Obama has been pushing?
Or were they most PR – a kind of bluff based on his expectation that Palestinian leaders will balk if the direct talks he advocates look like they're actually going to happen?
- Is Netanyahu pledging now to “take risks” because he means it, or because his assessment is that President Obama is too weak and maybe too worried about the upcoming congressional midterms and his own 2012 reelection prospects to jump into risk-filled Middle East mediation efforts?
- If direct talks do become a possibility, will Netanyahu seek to limit their scope, or will he agree to take up “final status” issues like Jerusalem – issues that could blow his right-of-center government apart?
- What about the Palestinians? Will they continue to resist direct talks, and thus play into Netanyahu's hands? Will they accept the call to sit down with the Israelis, but insist that the talks jump to final status issues right away?
- Will the Obama administration become more forceful in pressing the Palestinians, who have been content to sit back and wait for Washington to wrest concessions from Netanyahu, to make serious confidence building gestures?
- What will Netanyahu do about the soon-expiring 10 month freeze on settlement construction, and what did he promise Obama in private? A large-scale resumption of building could blow this week's amity out of the water; there's a lot of speculation that the two leaders agreed to a formula that would limit building, but not force Netanyahu to talk about it public.
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