The last time President Shimon Peres met US President Barack Obama was in May
2009, just two weeks before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was scheduled to
meet the new US president.
That visit by Peres was widely considered both
a “scouting” trip, to give Netanyahu an idea of what he would meet up with in
the Oval Office, and an effort by a man widely associated with the peace process
to “soften” Obama up a bit before Netanyahu’s visit.
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Netanyahu’s first visit with Obama was very difficult, marked by
sharp disagreements over both settlements – that was the visit in which Obama
called for a complete settlement halt – and Iran.
That first visit set a
decidedly negative tone that characterized the relationship between the two men
during their first year in office.
Much has transpired since then – in
the Netanyahu- Obama relationship, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the
Middle East – but Netanyahu, it seems, still needs Peres to pave his way to
Washington, where he is scheduled to visit again in May.
Peres is scheduled to see Obama on
Tuesday afternoon for a meeting that Peres initiated to talk about regional
developments and the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
according to sources both in his office and in Netanyahu’s, is going to the
meeting with Netanyahu’s blessing and after close coordination with
Netanyahu obviously knows Peres’s position that the upheavals in the
Middle East make it imperative to try and quickly come to an agreement with the
Palestinians before a new Middle East order is set, so that when the rulers of
this new order come to power, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will no longer be at
the top of the regional agenda.
The idea behind this way of thinking is
that it would be unwise for Israel to hunker down and just wait to see how
things develop in the region; rather, it is smarter for it to get ahead of the
curve and set facts on the ground that will then become givens when the new
rulers come into power.
It is likely that how exactly Israel can “get
ahead of the curve” – and how the US can help – will be the topic of the
As in May 2009, this visit seems both an attempt by
Netanyahu to scout out Obama’s thinking, and an effort to soften up the
president with a message that Israel also realizes the dramatic events
necessitate enhanced efforts with the Palestinians, but needs US assistance in
making that possible.
Netanyahu’s choice of messenger – or scout – says
much about Israel’s current political constellation.
In the past, for
instance, Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert, when they served as prime minister, could
hold a meeting with then-US president George W. Bush without first having to
send an emissary of goodwill. Netanyahu and Obama, obviously, don’t share that
type of relationship.
Under “normal” circumstances, the foreign minister
would serve as the prime minister’s scout abroad. But since Avigdor Lieberman
has essentially removed himself from the diplomatic process with the
Palestinians, there is nothing really for him to do in the US – so he goes there
most infrequently, and when he does, he generally limits himself to New York and
meetings with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In the absence of a
foreign minister who was a welcome guest in Washington, Defense Minister Ehud
Barak filled that role for months – until he started to lose his luster in
Washington, both because he lost his political strength when he broke away from
the Labor Party, and because, as some have argued, he proved unable to “deliver”
Which leaves Peres – the country’s indefatigable president who
is always welcomed with open arms in Washington.
But if the May 2009
Peres meeting with Obama is any indication, a warm embrace of Peres – even in
the capacity of Netanyahu’s scout – should not be interpreted as any reflection
of what awaits the prime minister when he follows his reconnoiter and goes to
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