Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will convene his senior ministers on Friday to discuss the demands made by US President Barack Obama and his overall trip to Washington – a trip that, because of negative atmospherics and amid a paucity of hard information, has been widely characterized as among the most difficult in recent memory.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office continued to throw a blackout on the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, as well as give only very sketchy information about the commitments that the US is demanding of Israel as a precursor to starting the proximity talks with the Palestinians. The US, according to officials, wants these commitments by Saturday so it can take them to the Arab League meeting in Libya and receive that organization's backing for starting proximity talks.
According to a Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah, the US administration on Thursday informed the PA that the Netanyahu meetings in Washington did not produce any agreement on the issue of construction in east Jerusalem.
The official said that PA President Mahmoud Abbas met in Amman with David Hale, US deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, who briefed him on the outcome of Netanyahu’s talks with Obama.
“The American envoy said that the two sides failed to reach agreement on settlement construction in Jerusalem,” the PA official said.
Hale also told Abbas that the US administration would continue its discussions with the Israeli government in the next few days and weeks, in an attempt to solve the crisis that has erupted between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.
Prior to leaving Washington late on Wednesday night, Netanyahu tried to put a positive spin on the meetings, saying that the two sides had made progress in finding a “middle path” between the “traditional policy of all Israeli governments [regarding building in east Jerusalem], and our will to also find a way to renew the peace process.”
US officials indicated on Thursday that Israel had bridged some of the gaps between the two countries during their marathon consultations, even though no final resolution was presented after Obama’s and Netanyahu’s staffs toiled late into the night on Wednesday for a second straight day.
“I think we’re making progress on important issues,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Thursday afternoon, but he declined to go into specifics.
US sources indicated that there seemed to be a good deal of movement on the contents of planned indirect negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Nevertheless, the administration’s treatment of Netanyahu during his meeting with Obama created the impression of a deep crisis in relations. As Jackson Diehl wrote in The Washington Post, the White House’s refusal to allow non-official photographers record the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, and the fact that no statement was issued afterward, led to the impression that “Netanyahu is being treated as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator, needed for strategic reasons but conspicuously held at arms length.”
According to various Israeli sources, the Obama administration is asking for Israel to commit to some type of limitation on building in east Jerusalem; to show a willingness to deal with the so-called core issues of borders, refugee and Jerusalem already in the indirect talks; and to agree to a number of confidence building measures, including the release of hundreds of Fatah prisoners.
There were also reports, not confirmed, that the administration had asked for a commitment to extend the moratorium on housing starts in the West Bank settlements beyond the 10-months originally declared.
One source in the Prime Minister’s Office said the goal of the dialogue with the US was to find a way to start the proximity talks and “put these problems behind us.”
The key problem with the US has to do with Jerusalem, with the administration making it clear in recent days that it did not accept Netanyahu’s declaration at the AIPAC conference on Monday evening that Jerusalem was not a settlement, but rather Israel’s capital, and that building would continue there.
“On the issue of Jerusalem,” one source in Netanyahu’s office said, “the truth is that this is a city of 750,000 people, and every couple of days there is going to be some kind of building, or zoning, or buying or planning and actual building. The whole idea that every time this happens dialogue will stop is a recipe for no peace process.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of the members of Netanyahu’s “septet” inner cabinet, told Channel 2 on Thursday that while Israel was not looking for a fight with the US, it would not give up on its “basic right” to build in Jerusalem. This sentiment was repeated by Netanyahu a number of times during his visit to Washington.
Lieberman, according to some reports, called the prime minister during his Washington talks to urge him not to bow to US pressure and not to sign off on any new commitments.
Regarding confidence building measures to the Palestinians, Netanyahu, according to senior officials, did not commit himself to a prisoner release, and said he would bring the matter to the security establishment in Israel to determine whether this was something they would recommend or not.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who accompanied Netanyahu on the trip, told the Americans – who reportedly had asked for an Israeli commitment to extend the housing start moratorium – that he was “disappointed” by the reaction to the original moratorium decision. He said he thought this would garner more positive reactions from around the world, as well as bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. Instead, he said, the move made the Palestinians believe that if they held out, they could get even more.
Netanyahu, during his talks in the White House, asked the Obama administration why it was not placing the same kind of pressure on the Palestinians as it was placing on Israel, and asked where the “reciprocity” was. Netanyahu, according to senior officials, said that while the US held him responsible for the timing of the announcement to build 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo, rather than holding Interior Minister Eli Yishai responsible, Abbas was not held responsible when it came to the PA – which recently presided over the naming of a square in Ramallah for the terrorist responsible for the Coastal Road massacre.
Meanwhile, the PA’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Israel was “damaging its credibility as a serious peace partner” by refusing to stop construction in east Jerusalem and West Bank settlements.
In response to the latest decision to approve the construction of 20 housing units at the site of Shepherd’s Hotel in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, Erekat said: “There is a growing sense of frustration among the international community with the measures and decisions taken by Israel.”
Erekat said that if Israel were serious about achieving peace with the Palestinians, it would stop building “illegal settlements,” as requested by the road map for peace in the Middle East and the Quartet.
“Why is Israel continuing to do what it’s doing at a time when everyone is urging it to do what is needed to achieve peace?” he asked.
The PA official said that the decision to build the new homes in Sheikh
Jarrah was in the context of Israel’s policy to “end Palestinian
presence in Occupied East Jerusalem” and destroy any hope of reaching
agreement over the issue of the city.
Erekat said that the PA
wanted to give the proposed proximity talks a chance to succeed,
“because our obvious goal is to end Israeli occupation and [achieve]
the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state within
the pre-June 4, 1967, borders.”
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report from Washington.