Unlike their first meeting in May 2009, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did
not look surprised on Monday in the Oval Office by anything US President Barack
Obama said during statements that preceded their long-awaited meeting on
This time there was no unexpected announcement by the president, as
there was during that first parley, when Obama – completely unbeknownst to
Netanyahu beforehand – called for a total settlement freeze.
their last meeting in May 2011, Obama did not clench his fist around the arm of
his chair when Netanyahu spoke, as he did last time when the prime minister
launched into what was interpreted by many in the administration as a lecture by
Netanyahu on why Israel could not return to the pre-1967 lines.
time there were no surprises. What Obama said during the 10 minutes of
statements to reporters and what Netanyahu said were the same statements both
leaders articulated at different moments over the last few days.
took the opportunity to highlight a number of points. The first was that he
personally is committed to the “unbreakable” bond between the two
Or, as he put it, “We will always have Israel’s
It is important for Obama to stress this point over and over in
the run-up to the November elections in order to reassure some American Jews who
have their doubts.
Secondly – and with all the discussion about Iran,
this was somewhat unexpected – Obama did mention the Palestinian diplomatic
track. While it was sticking to the degree to which the Palestinian issue had
been shunted aside on this visit, that he mentioned it at all – something
Netanyahu did not do – seemed to be a signal to the Palestinians that they have
not been forgotten, even though reaching a solution in the near future might be
“a difficult thing to do in light of the context right now.”
with regards to Iran, Obama had a multifaceted message: First, that a nuclear
Iran was not just an Israeli problem, but an American one as well; second, that there was still time through diplomatic channels to get Iran to
change its mind on pursuing nuclear arms; and thirdly, that all options are on
the table, and “when I say all options are on the table, I mean it.”
Obama did not do was go any further – as some in Jerusalem had hoped – than
using the “all options” language. And here Obama sent a signal to Israel, as if
to say, “I will do things the way I see fit; don’t push me. I will determine how
far I want to go.”
Netanyahu’s message was not as multifaceted, but was
clear. Even after Obama said that Iran is not only Israel’s problem, but a
profound one for the US, Netanyahu rammed that point home, saying that for
Iran’s leaders, “You are the great Satan; we are the little Satan. For them, we
are you and you are us, and at least on this last point, Mr. President, they are
right. We are you, and you are us.”
With this, Netanyahu was
forcefully trying to reframe the issue that over the past few months has
increasingly become one of Iran versus Israel.
No, Netanyahu said, it was
just as much Iran versus America.
And his second major message was that –
with all the background noise, with all the media speculation about the
difficulties of an attack on Iran, or what it would lead to, with all the
warnings from foreign leaders – Israel was still a sovereign nation and would
make decisions related to its security on its own.
If Obama was unwilling
to go beyond his “everything’s on the table” statement, Netanyahu was unwilling
to roll back his “we will act if we must” rhetoric.
Obama’s words didn’t
surprise Netanyahu, and Netanyahu’s didn’t lead Obama to clench his fist around
his armrest. These are the messages that the two capitals have been passing back
and forth for weeks.
Maybe there has been no full agreement, but so far
there have also been no surprises.