Short of Barack Obama physically wrestling Binyamin Netanyahu out of the White House with the admonishment never to darken his doorway again, it is hard to imagine how Tuesday’s talks between the president and the prime minister could play out more damagingly than did their last meeting.
In March, it will be recalled, the White House did not so much as release a photograph of the two men in conversation, much less arrange for a joint press conference at which they could praise each other’s friendship, firm leadership and commitment to peacemaking.
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While both sides subsequently strenuously discounted reports of a deliberate presidential snub, there was no denying that Netanyahu had hardly received cherished ally treatment, and this fed a range of speculative analyses whose repercussions are still being felt – hence the readiness worldwide last week to believe the misquotation attributed to Israel’s ambassador in Washington about a “tectonic rift” in US-Israel ties.
Unless a flotilla, a controversial building project or other dramatic development intervenes – and that is always a possibility – it is likely, therefore, that this White House meeting will be presented, superficially at least, as the latest step in the gradual warming of relations between two leaders who had plainly been at odds.
The question is whether, behind the anticipated choreographed smiles and professions of partnership, real progress will be made in resolving substantive differences.
The expectation in Jerusalem is that a significant part of the leaders’ conversation will focus on Iran, an area of relative agreement between them.
Although Israel has been hard-pressed to maintain its public support for the Obama administration’s painstakingly slow progress toward harsher sanctions on Iran, and although concern grows here by the day that the US-led international economic pressure is emphatically too little, and almost certainly too late, there will be no breaking of ranks at this stage.
Israel would have wanted harsher international pressure, a lot sooner, directed at Iran’s energy industry – the kind of pressure that could truly leave the Teheran regime concerned that it risked losing power if it maintained its insistent pursuit of nuclear weaponry. But the US-led sanctions campaign is the only viable international route, and Netanyahu has seen no choice but to publicly endorse it, even as the Israeli leadership agonizes over the fateful dilemma it might face, sooner rather than later, if it becomes clear that time has run out, and that only military intervention can prevent an Iranian bomb.
Behind-the-scenes contacts have also alleviated some of the tensions that erupted after the US, in May, chose not to torpedo the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference’s final document, which skewed its focus away from Iran and onto Israel. Many in Jerusalem had been palpably surprised, if not horrified, by the ignominious contrast with the US administration’s handling of a similar campaign against Israel at the 2005 review conference, when president George W. Bush essentially walked out in order to protect Israel. But the word is that the administration has since given Israel private assurances that longtime understandings, regarding American support for Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity, remain in place.
The White House has also reportedly been working behind-the-scenes to assuage Israeli-Turkish tensions – albeit to no great discernible effect, it should be noted, with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday again threatening to sever diplomatic relations if Israel does not apologize for, or accept the findings of an international inquiry into, last month’s fatal raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara.
Where differences most certainly remain, however, is regarding the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process.
Washington recognizes that Netanyahu’s easing of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank has contributed to the dramatic improvement of the economy there. The administration knows that he has honored his settlement moratorium, with no housing starts recorded at West Bank settlements in the first months of this year, and very little new being built, for that matter, even in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem. It has heeded his stated readiness for a flexible approach to long-term security arrangements in the Jordan Valley and his declared willingness, too, to place the issue of Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem on the negotiating table.
Moreover, it fully shares his oft-stated desire to move from the unproductive, indirect “proximity” framework and into direct talks.
But the two leaderships have always disagreed, and still do, in assessing the peacemaking credentials of the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Put simply, the Obama administration believes Abbas is for real, and the Netanyahu prime ministership does not.
Doubtless with US encouragement, Abbas has made conciliatory comments about Israel on several recent occasions, including during his US visit when meeting with Jewish leaders and in interviews with the Hebrew media. Notably, he asserted last month that “Nobody denies the Jewish history in the Middle East... Nobody from our side at least denies that the Jews were in Palestine.”
That’s a far cry from his predecessor Yasser Arafat’s derisive dismissal of Jewish historical legitimacy here, and his notorious assertions that “there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem.”
But it’s also a far cry, as some in the Netanyahu circle point out, from repeatedly delivering that same Israel-legitimizing message in Arabic, repeatedly, to the Palestinians themselves – to a public, indeed, that is still being fed regular PA TV broadcasts asserting Palestinian rights to all of Israel.
Given this critical and fundamental difference of assessment, given Washington’s conviction that Israel should want to extend a settlement freeze in order to bolster the momentum of negotiations, and given Netanyahu’s reluctance to maintain the moratorium beyond September, parts of the Hebrew media are predicting another difficult, even openly nasty meeting on Tuesday.
But both the key players have signaled their desire for this to be a constructive session.
Netanyahu flies to Washington having thwarted a move from the Right to require Knesset approval for an extended moratorium, having tried to prevent further Jerusalem building embarrassments (including delaying an initial approval of 60 new units in Pisgat Ze’ev), and having radically eased what Washington had branded the “unsustainable” restrictions on supplies entering Gaza.
And Obama hosts him ahead of critical mid-term congressional elections in November, having felt some very chill winds from Capitol Hill, and from Jewish donors to the Democratic party, for the perceived imbalance of his previous tough-on-Israel, easy-onthe- Palestinians stance.
Netanyahu will emerge from the White House a very happy man if he can
obtain American support for his idea of a reduction in the scope of the
settlement freeze, freeing him to resume building inside the settlement
blocs less than three months from now – a gambit that he would like to
believe can grudgingly satisfy his coalition, the Palestinians and the
But even if, as is probable, Obama balks
at the idea, it is unlikely that disagreements over this, or any other
issue, will be allowed to spoil the effort at public fence-building.
November, if peace talks are still going nowhere, Netanyahu may well
face a far rougher ride. But given the day-to-day crisis atmosphere of
Israeli domestic and regional politics, Netanyahu would happily settle
for five months of relative tranquility, and worry about November when
it gets here.