WASHINGTON – Perhaps the most stunning element of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Washington trip is the degree to which he was surprised – again – by US President Barack Obama.
For all the clarification Obama made during his Sunday speech to AIPAC of what he really meant by saying last Thursday that Israel should withdraw to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed-upon land swaps, in the final analysis Netanyahu didn’t see this coming. He was taken completely by surprise – something that accounts both for his furious phone call with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just before Obama delivered the Thursday speech, and for his harsh response to the speech, which set a nasty tone for the visit before it even got underway.
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In a sense, this is diplomatic deja vu. Back in May 2009, during Netanyahu’s first White House meeting with Obama, the president sprang a surprise with his call for an end to settlement construction.
Like the events of the past week, Netanyahu did not see the settlement
freeze demand coming. His aides, in prior meetings with administration
officials, were not given notice that this was the direction where Obama
was headed. It was a major break with previous administration positions
and it cast a heavy cloud over Jerusalem’s ties with Washington for
The same pattern now repeated itself. For whatever reason – perhaps
because there were intense debates among Obama’s advisors regarding what
to say about Israel in the Middle East speech – the message picked up
both by Israeli officials and US Jewish leaders was that there would be
no new ground broken, and that Israel had, as one official said a day
before the speech, “nothing to worry about.”
Indeed, 24 hours before Obama’s Thursday address, the Prime Minister’s
Office said it was unlikely to issue a response to the speech because a
day later Netanyahu would meet with the president and tell him in
private what he thought.
But again Obama opted for surprise. Unlike May 2009, however, at which
time Netanyahu did not respond directly to the settlement freeze demand
in the press conference that followed his first meeting with Obama, this
time he changed tactics and in an exceptional delivery of statements
during an Oval Office photo-op on Friday told Obama that this simply
would not work.
Beyond the whole debate of what Obama truly means when he says “1967
lines with land swaps,” the concern in the Prime Minister’s Office was
that if left unchallenged, the impression would be that US policy now
called on Israel to return to those lines. It was in order to alter this
perception that the prime minister challenged Obama so publicly. And,
indeed, Obama clarified his statement, seeming to roll it back a bit.
A bit, but not completely.
What is currently irking Netanyahu, beyond the president’s failure to
say specifically that the descendants of Palestinian refugees would need
to be absorbed in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel, is
the idea of land swaps that appeared in both of Obama’s speeches.
Mutually agreed-upon swaps, Obama said, mean the negotiation of a border
that is different from the one that existed before June 4, 1967. But it
also presupposes that Israel will have to trade land inside pre-1967
Israel for land retained beyond the Green Line – a principle Netanyahu
is opposed to.
This idea was part of the proposal that then-prime minister Ehud Olmert
put on the table in his talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, although
at the time it was part of an overall package that included agreements
on Jerusalem and the refugees – a package the Palestinians did not
Netanyahu has never endorsed publicly or privately the idea of land
swaps – and it was one of the things that left him unpleasantly
surprised on Thursday. Despite Obama’s subsequent clarifications, it
will remain an irritant between Jerusalem and Washington in the near