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Will Obama take risks for Mideast peace?

By Amjad Atallah, Special to CNN
President Obama hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week at the White House.
President Obama hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week at the White House.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amjad Atallah says Israeli prime minister emerged as the winner from White House meeting
  • He says Israeli prime minister didn't commit to extending curbs on expanding settlements
  • Atallah: Obama gave more weight to backing Israel than to standing up for peace process
  • Meeting didn't demonstrate that U.S. is willing to take risks for peace, Atallah says
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Editor's note: Amjad Atallah is co-director of the Middle East Task Force of the New America Foundation and an editor at the Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com. He has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in peace negotiations with Israel on borders, security and constitutional issues.

(CNN) -- Inside the Beltway and in capitals around the world, pundits closely watched this week's meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The general consensus is that Netanyahu "rolled" Obama. Israeli, Arab and European headlines agreed that Netanyahu came out the winner. Haaretz noted that Obama had given Netanyahu a new lease on political life. Al-Jazeera's Marwan Bishara used more colorful language to discuss Netanyahu's success.

For many observers, there was a sense of déjà vu. On April 5, 2002, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell demanded that Israel withdraw from the centers of Palestinian population centers and end all settlement activity but failed to convince then-Israeli Likud leader Ariel Sharon to do so. Two weeks later, Bush rebounded and called Sharon a "man of peace."

The lag time between when an American president stands strong on principle and American national interest but then gives in to the realities that he doesn't want to expend domestic political capital on supporting those principles can sometimes be so short as to leave one's head spinning.

Both the efforts to "be tough" with Israel and the charm offensive to show Israeli leaders that they have unconditional never-ending American support have failed to deflect Israeli leaders from pursuing their goals in the occupied Palestinian territory. There has yet to be a year since the start of the Madrid talks in 1991 when the number of settlers (encouraged with U.S. donor assistance) to move into Palestinian territory has been frozen or declined. That growth is specifically designed to ensure that a two-state solution will be impossible to negotiate, let alone implement.

U.S. prestige in the region, by contrast, continues to be weakened by the only two possible narratives Arabs and Muslims can accept: Either the United States supports Israel's occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, or it doesn't but is too weak to convince Israel to do what virtually every Western country believes is in its best interest.

We are either the bad guy or the weak guy. Not quite the position where we want to be while fighting to stop al Qaeda and to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan enough to withdraw without appearing to fail. Nor is it the place the U.S. should be while still in a standoff with Iran and relying on several Arab countries to provide bases for our military forces.

Obama seems to recognize that. His speech in Cairo, Egypt, a year ago and his early principled approach to Israel's settlement policy allowed the hopeful in the region to expect that perhaps there was a third narrative: the United States as the good guy, seeking to end all the foreign occupations in the region while creating a free and independent Palestinian state.

This week's Obama-Netanyahu photo-op in the White House doesn't end all that, but it did nothing to advance it. Even the one thing Obama tried to give Netanyahu credit for -- easing the siege on the civilian population of Gaza -- isn't really his win or Netanyahu's.

Turkish diplomatic pressure over the flotilla raid is credited by everyone from European Union Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton to the woman on the street from Cairo to Baghdad for easing the lives of Palestinian civilians -- not American diplomacy or Israeli goodwill.

Consider what didn't happen at this week's meeting: Israel was expected to commit to a continuation of the so-called "settlement moratorium" after the end of September. Netanyahu can go back to his right-wing coalition and say he didn't give in. In fact, at a speech Thursday to the Council on Foreign Relations, when asked about extending the settlement slowdown, he said, "I think we've done enough."

Now consider what did happen: Netanyahu received a variation of the "man of peace" speech, with Obama saying that he believed Netanyahu wanted peace and was prepared to take risks for it. More substantively, Obama said that he accepted that Israel had unique security requirements when it comes to nuclear nonproliferation issues.

It is one thing to remain purposefully ambiguous regarding Israel's nuclear weapons program (any potential U.S. support would violate our own requirements under the Non-Proliferation Treaty) -- it is another to give it a public nod and wink while trying to mobilize the world against Iran's nuclear program, mindful of the fact that Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The statement also continued to encourage the idea of Israeli exceptionalism -- the rules that others must follow don't apply to Israel. Obama also continued to ask for confidence-building measures from Arab states even without any success on settlements.

The one area where Netanyahu raised eyebrows was on his endorsement of a Palestinian state, but even there, he saved the mention for after his meeting with Obama. In both his interview on CNN with Larry King and speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, he acknowledged the result of a peace agreement would be a "demilitarized Palestinian state," echoing previous Israeli prime ministers from the time of Yitzhak Rabin.

This was not a make or break meeting in any sense of the word. Most pundits sighed and recognized the reality of election-year campaigning. But it did nothing to re-enliven Obama's Cairo speech from one year ago and nothing to convince Arabs, Muslims or Europeans (let alone Israelis and Palestinians) that the United States was prepared to take domestic political risks for peace -- even when U.S. interests are at stake.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amjad Atallah.