Did Netanyahu Best Obama in Mideast-Peace Tussle?

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

U.S. President Barack Obama looks on as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, shake hands before a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, President Barack Obama used his first-ever address to the U.N. General Assembly to try and reverse the impression that his ambitious Middle East peace effort had suffered a reversal at the hand of Israel's hawkish Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. "I am not naive," Obama told the gathered world leaders. "I know this will be difficult. But all of us must decide whether we are serious about peace or whether we only lend it lip service."

Many a jaded commentator saw Obama's Tuesday meeting with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a symbol of surrender to Netanyahu's refusal of the U.S. demand that Israel halt all construction on land conquered in 1967. Instead, Netanyahu offered a partial and time-limited freeze and appeared to force the President of the United States to back down. For Abbas, the handshake with Netanyahu orchestrated by Obama was viewed as a humiliating climbdown from his refusal to talk to the Israelis until they implemented that settlement freeze.

Netanyahu, briefing the Israeli media after the talks, suggested that the Palestinians had also caved in to his demand for a reopening of talks without preconditions on an agenda the two sides would determine in discussions. But Abbas insisted that any talks would be based on the full range of final-status issues established by previous agreements — Netanyahu has publicly ruled out negotiating on two of those issues, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

Abbas appeared to win Obama's backing in the U.N. speech, which made clear that the President has not accepted Netanyahu's position on the precursor issue of a settlement freeze even if he's decided to move on to the final-status negotiations. "America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," the President insisted on Wednesday. That could be read as a response to the damage Obama's credibility has suffered in the Arab world as a result of being forced by Netanyahu to retreat on the settlement issue, which had been widely viewed as a test of Israel's peacemaking bona fides and had been a centerpiece of Obama's Cairo outreach speech in the spring. But there was an even stronger challenge to Netanyahu in Obama's declared plan to relaunch negotiations "that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders, refugees and Jerusalem." He also spoke of the goal of those negotiations as being the establishment of "a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967."

While many analysts focused on Tuesday's meeting as an Obama admission of defea on settlements, some were more optimistic. Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy believes that the Administration's pivot on the issue smartly boxed Netanyahu into a negotiating process the Israeli leader would have preferred to avoid, by turning his own argument against him: if, as Netanyahu insists, settlements should be an issue for negotiation rather than a precondition because their fate will depend on future borders, then why not move straight to final-status negotiations over those borders?

Final-status talks were something Netanyahu had hoped to dodge. Not only does his right-wing coalition government refuse to countenance negotiations over refugees or Jerusalem, but also, the Prime Minister, much of whose political career has been built on resisting the Oslo peace process, has sought to promote incremental improvements in Palestinian life, particularly the economy, over the search for a final two-state agreement. Obama isn't buying it. According to Israeli accounts of Tuesday's meeting, the U.S. President "scolded" Netanyahu and Abbas, declaring "We've had enough talks. We need to end this conflict. There is a window of opportunity, but it might shut." And according to these reports, Obama insisted that the negotiations will not be started from scratch but will instead be based on the previous agreements established through the Oslo process. In other words, Jerusalem and refugees are on the table, and Israel is expected to show up.

Obama is still talking tough, then, but having watched him climb down from his settlement-freeze demand — and the rebuff from moderate Arab states to the President's call for them to make tangible gestures toward normalization of ties with Israel — most analysts are waiting to see what actions back his words. Reports from the talks suggest the Administration will summon the two parties to Washington next month for talks under U.S. auspices on the full gamut of final-status issues. But Netanyahu may have his own ideas and may be buoyed by his success in resisting the settlement-freeze demand. Indeed, the Israeli Prime Minister's domestic popularity has surged as a result of his defiance of Obama. Abbas, however, who had already been reduced to an increasingly marginal figure by the failure of his negotiating efforts over the past decade to win any significant gains for the Palestinians, suffered further political damage by even showing up for the handshake.

But even the relatively hawkish Israeli commentator Shmuel Rosner warns that "Israel should restrain itself from declaring victory just yet. True, Obama had to draw down his overeager demands from Israel. But it is also true that Netanyahu, not long ago, had to reverse his opposition to a two-state solution and publicly declare that his goal is similar to the one espoused today by Obama. True, Abbas was dragged to the summit only days after insisting that he will not come to any meeting unless settlement construction is frozen first. But it is also true that Netanyahu, the head of the right-wing Likud Party, is one of the first Israeli Prime Ministers to agree to some form of settlement freeze."

Levy, too, believes it is too early to count out Obama's effort. "America will have to recognize that in the Israelis and Palestinians, it is dealing with two deeply dysfunctional polities," he argues. "The parties simply cannot achieve a peace agreement of their own volition. And the outcome is too important for them, and for America, to leave it at the mercy of the two electorates. So at some point, I think, the Administration is going to find an appropriate moment to present and pursue an American plan for a comprehensive peace."