Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in Washington in two weeks to address the annual AIPAC Conference, as he did in March 2010, and so he also gets to meet again with President Obama. Last year's White House meeting produced no photo op, underscoring the Administration's general disappointment with Netanyahu's failure to open any functioning doors to substantive talks with the Palestinians. It also didn't help Netanyahu that Obama was fresh from winning one of the biggest fights of his Presidency -- comprehensive health care reform. I'm guessing Netanyahu was caught off guard by a President not looking to waste time on losing propositions (as if Netanyahu really intends to cut a realistic deal with the Palestinians) -- especially on one of his best days.
This year, Netanyahu's visit comes shortly after the President's biggest and gutsiest victory so far: The killing of Osama Bin Laden. And the timing only gets worse. The Palestinians Netanyahu could have dealt with last year have now merged with Hamas, largely out of weakness and desparation brought on by no resumption of talks -- and partly thanks to Obama for persistently highlighting Israeli settlements and to the Israelis for consistently flaunting them. Last year, Israeli-Palestinian peace could have taken the pressure off the United States for its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now the Middle East has a dozen countries in various stages of democratic change, thank you very much.
President Obama could have used an Israeli-Palestinian peace process under his belt BEFORE the Arab Spring. He could still use it, were his domestic policies still under assault from all quarters. But his approval rating got a serious boost following the Bin Laden kill, and being seen to twist the arm of an Israeli Prime Minister -- an inevitable consequence of any serious peacemaking -- is not a useful way for a popular President to secure re-election.
For their own reasons, each man must present a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, but neither vision is likely to reach fruition. Obama needs to show the newly liberated Arab masses that America cares about the Palestinians, even if we spent the last 50 years propping up dictators. Israel needs to make the pretense of trying to stave off a unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians, a job made easier by the new Fatah-Hamas agreement, and Netanyahu could try to pre-empt Obama's version.
The two men will meet, and this time the White House may even release a photo. Perhaps a new event will bring together Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, though many vulnerable Arab leaders would likely stay away this time. If the 2007 Annapolis Conference was useless because Abbas and Israel's then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were already meeting regularly anyway, this new conference will be useless because it will probably be window-dressing for an empty store.
Let me clarify: It will be useless to the cause of Middle East peace, but still worthwhile for each of the leaders involved. Obama can show he tried, and without overly pressuring Israel. Netanyahu can play Obama's cooperative strategic partner, and finally start earning back some Frequent Statesman miles. Abbas can hope to regain Western European support for a United Nations vote next autumn on Palestinian statehood (maybe).
Obama may finally be learning and accepting that Netanyahu cannot be expected to deliver on the Palestinian track, and also figuring out that it's worth looking busy about it anyway. On the other hand, Obama's Osama cred is on par with Israel's 1976 Entebbe rescue, and he can always trade on that if he wants to push for real peace and figures he can now win even without Jewish support. Netanyahu might like to consider giving the President something more deliverable up front.