The commentariat and the blogs are full of predictions that Obama and Netanyahu are headed for a clash when they meet on May 18, or soon after. These predictions are coming from pundits on the left, who imagine that U.S. pressure on Israel is the magical key to peace, and many on the right, who think the Obama team is dominated by the naive left and Arabists who know and care little about Israel's security.
I am betting against all of them. My prediction: while Obama and Netanyahu will have differences on the margins, they will find common ground on the main elements of a coordinated strategy for an initial period of 12-24 months. Here are some of the basic elements, as I see them:
Iran: The Obama team intends to make an effort to strike a bargain with Iran, but does not have high expectations that the effort will succeed. Netanyahu is willing to accept such an effort, albeit with still lower expectations, on the chance that it will yield a result. Key issue: agreeing on a time frame for the initiative, and a deadline for success after which there will be a reevaluation of the strategy. Israel is on a shorter clock than the U.S., while Russia and China have no deadline at all. Other sensitive points: the scale of permissible Iranian enrichment while talks proceed, and any long-term Iranian role in enrichment that might be accepted in the framework of an agreement. The most important question--what to do if the talks fail--will be taken off the table until the reevaluation.
Palestinians: Netanyahu has already agreed to resume negotiations with Abu Mazen about the principles of a final status agreement. He will make a declaration that Israel's security requirements can be reconciled with a formula for Palestinian statehood if the commitments that the Palestinians made in past agreements, including the Roadmap, were fulfilled. But he will put the emphasis on reciprocity, as he has in the past, emphasizing that Israel will take no further risks until the terrorist infrastructure is uprooted and greater progress is made in building the foundations for alternative security arrangements. Netanyahu's formulation will meet the essential requirements of what the Obama team needs.
Settlements: I predict that a solution to the problem of a "settlements freeze" to meet the requirements of the Roadmap, will be found in the understandings negotiated by Dov Weissglas in 2002-2004, reviewed in detail in my article, "Obama and a Settlements Freeze." The most sensitive issues will be how to treat communities that fall within the "settlement blocs" that the failed Clinton Administration Camp David negotiations recognized, and the principle of a "construction line" to differentiate between internal zones within which "vertical growth" is permitted, versus outward expansion of settlements, which I predict Netanyahu will agree to curtail.
Linkage: It is true that the Obama team believes that progress on the Palestinian file would help to isolate Iran. But they are not dreamers. They certainly don't expect a final status agreement to emerge in less than a year, the time frame for the Iranian nuclear file. Palestinian progress will be measured by limited steps, and Netanyahu is prepared to do his part. The debate about linkage is inflated. It is not a key issue for the coming 12-24 months.
I am not predicting a relationship free of differences. The two countries have never had one and never will. But I predict much closer harmonization of policy than others seem to expect. Elliot Abrams offers more nuanced advice in the Wall Street Journal today.