The news in Israel has been dominated by the appearance of various American and Israeli political leaders at the Saban Conference in Washington, DC. The first headlines were made by Secretary of State Kerry who stated he was optimistic that an agreement could be reached between Israelis and Palestinians. Kerry was followed by Foreign Minister Lieberman declaring there was no chance such an agreement could be reached. However, President Obama stole the show yesterday, when he answered questions first from Haim Saban, and then from the audience at the conference (that included Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israel intelligence.) Obama fielded questions both on Iran and on Palestinian talks. The President’s comments on both items made news.
First, regarding Iran, President Obama gave his first clear explanation of why he thought the negotiated agreement was the best that could be obtained. He made it clear he is not sure at all that the agreement will work out. However, he believes strongly that we must give the agreement a chance. Furthermore, Obama explained, had the decision been made to turn down an agreement, he believed the sanctions regime would collapse. President Obama also spoke out for the first time on what a final agreement would look like. He believes a final agreement would allow the Iranians to do limited enrichment, but not with new centrifuges, and not more the 3 percent. If the Iranians really have only peaceful intentions (as they continually claim), they have no reason for a heavy water plant– a light water plant is all they need.
President Obama was persuasive. Though only time will tell. What President Obama succeeded in doing by making sure he spoke during prime-time Israeli news, was to reach out directly to the Israeli people– since his speech was carried live. He also made news on the Palestinian front in two ways. First, by making it clear that any agreement would have to include an extended Israeli security presence in at least parts of the West Bank; and second by clarifying that he did not think it was going to be possible to reach a final peace agreement in the coming months– rather a framework agreement, part of which could be implemented immediately. It’s not clear whether he and Secretary Kerry are on exactly the same page, but Obama has always been more cautious on the chances of reaching an agreement.
Prime Minister Netanyahu also addressed the Saban Forum (not in person, but by satellite feed.) He reiterated his normal talking points vis-à-vis Iran. Netanyahu further stated that Iran getting the bomb would make reaching peace with the Palestinian nearly impossible. What he did not say was that Israel demands that the Iranians not have the right to enrich to 3%. The Prime Minister has decided not to frontally attack the American administration, and rather to try now to get the best agreement possible. That seems to be the line currently being taken by all of the Israeli government.
There are clear fractures in the coalition, first over issue of State and Religion. It began with a bill to give same-sex couples the same tax rights as heterosexual couples. This bill passed the government’s law committee with both Yesh Atid, the Likud, and HaT’nua supporting it. However, HaBayit Hayehudi has been doing all they can to torpedo the bill. They seem to be doing the same in other areas of religion– including waffling regarding the issue of the Haredi draft. Of course, any peace agreement regardless of how limited, is unlikely to get the approval of HaBayit Hayehudi. There is also real concern that Housing Minister Uri Ariel, from HaBayit Hayehudi, could effectively blow up the talks by announcing some new housing plans for the West bank. Thus, it was interesting today when Finance Minister Lapid openly discussed the possibility of replacing HaBayit Hayehudi with the Labor party– if there is any chance of reaching a peace agreement. After a period of relative political quiet, things look like they are getting interesting.