Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his staff worked furiously with US officials on Wednesday to put together a document outlining Israeli commitments and obligations to launch proximity talks with the Palestinians, after two hours of meetings between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama failed to resolve disagreements between the two countries.
The Israeli effort seemed aimed at garnering goodwill from the Americans after a White House meeting that appeared to do little to dissipate recent tensions between the two allies.
Talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell were added to the schedule in the afternoon, following deliberations Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Ambassador Michael Oren and top aides held at the Israeli Embassy in Washington earlier in the day.
The Israeli team was working on a document to provide to the White House before Netanyahu’s planned departure on Wednesday night, later than originally expected, according to diplomatic officials in Jerusalem.
The document was “so far-reaching” that the prime minister and Barak needed to consult with the other five members of the inner cabinet known as the “septet,” according to one official, who noted that phone consultation with the ministers was expected before the document would be finalized.
The document is believed to consist of a series of Israeli commitments to the US outlining confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians and a willingness to deal with the core issues – settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and security – during the proximity talks. The assumption is that the US will then take this document to the Palestinians, and to the Arab League, which is meeting in Tripoli, Libya, this weekend, and say that this was what Israel has agreed upon in writing.
“The prime minister is making every effort to leave Washington on a positive note and bring an immediate renewal of peace talks with Palestinians to fruition,” an Israel official stressed.
Aside from a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office describing Netanyahu’s private conversation with Obama on Tuesday night as being held “in a good atmosphere,” few positive words were offered on the meeting.
American officials only went so far as to say there was an “honest and straightforward discussion” that was “frank, candid and open.”
“The president asked the prime minister to take steps to build confidence for proximity talks so that progress can be made toward comprehensive Middle East peace,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “There are areas of agreement, there are areas of disagreement, and that conversation is ongoing.”
Gibbs, along with several other US and Israeli officials, declined to discuss the specific content of the meeting or what disagreements he referred to.
The only details Gibbs offered concerned the time frame of the meeting, noting that Obama and Netanyahu had met privately for an hour and a half in the Oval Office, after which the prime minister and his aides spoke on their own in the Roosevelt Room. Netanyahu then asked that Obama return, according to Gibbs, and the two men talked again for another 35 minutes, concluding right before 9 p.m.
He also said that the two leaders’ staffs continued the conversation until nearly 1 a.m. before picking up again on Wednesday.
The meeting was held amid a total media blackout, with no press conference, photos or even a joint statement issued afterward.
Such treatment is highly unusual for a head of government, especially from a close ally, and gave rise to widespread speculation that the president did not want to reward Netanyahu with a photo of the two together.
The last time they met, when Netanyahu came to Washington in November to address the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the meeting was shrouded in similar secrecy. But on that occasion, aides on both sides were at pains to stress that it was positive encounter.
This time, not only were such characterizations lacking, but the tension surrounding the meeting and suspicions that it went badly were intensified by reports published right before the meeting that the Jerusalem Municipality gave final approval to a request to build 20 apartments for Jews in the Shepherd Hotel compound in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
The recent US-Israeli row was sparked when an Interior Ministry panel approved 1,600 housing units in east Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, a move Washington would like to see reversed.
US officials declined to specify whether that incident came up during the conversation with the prime minister, but State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that American is “seeking clarification” on the issue.
He also said, “We’ve made our position on Jerusalem clear on many occasions. We believe this is a final-status issue and that both sides should refrain from acts that could undermine trust or prejudge the outcome of negotiations.”
In response to the waves this announcement stirred up, Netanyahu’s spokesman Nir Hefetz issued a statement saying that there were no restrictions on Jews or Arabs buying properties throughout Jerusalem.
Regarding the specific project in Sheikh Jarrah, Hefetz said that the final approvals for the project were received a number of months ago, in 2009. “Reports as if a new decision on this issue was taken close to the prime minister’s visit to Washington are incorrect,” he said.
When asked about the Israeli explanation, specifically the charts on
the layers of bureaucracy involved in any zoning decision, Toner
replied, “To parse out their explanations is something they need to do,
not us.” But he said that in the Shepherd Hotel decision was “all part
of the ongoing discussion.”
Toner said that discussion would continue over the next week as
lower-level officials hold contacts in the region, including talks with
Palestinians planned by the US consul-general in Jerusalem and Mitchell
deputy David Hale.
He added that Mitchell was expected to return to the region after Pessah.