'Netanyahu-Obama meeting positive'

Meeting between Netanyah

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, JPOST CORRESPONDENT IN WASHI
February 22, 2010 16:59
bibi dc 248 88 AP

bibi dc 248 88 AP. (photo credit: )

Despite a media blackout and the lack of the usual pomp at Monday night's meeting between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, officials on both sides stressed that the talks had been positive. The meeting, in which the two men met one-on-one for nearly an hour and then for an additional 40 minutes accompanied by their aides, addressed the peace process, Iran and other crucial issues. "It was a very positive meeting," a senior US administration official told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday, rejecting reports of a contentious encounter as "silly media speculation." Several other sources familiar with the meeting's dynamics described it as positive and cordial, rather than angry and confrontational. Officials painted it as an opportunity to move past some of the differences and tensions that have sprung up between Jerusalem and Washington in recent months. Sources also indicated that the meeting was helpful in reigniting momentum to move toward renewed talks with the Palestinians. It came as US Middle East envoy George Mitchell met in Washington for yet another round of talks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and envoys Yitzhak Molcho and Mike Herzog. As the envoys met, and while standing near the steps of the airplane that took him from Washington to Paris, Netanyahu told reporters that the "importance of the visit will become clear in the future." He, too, dismissed the "grossly inaccurate" stories of a bad meeting, saying, "The discussion dealt with the complex issues vital for Israel's security and our joint efforts to advance the peace process. We discussed these issues in detail, in a practical way and out of friendship. I really appreciated the professional and positive approach I discovered." Netanyahu added that his talk with Obama had been "warm" and "open." The meeting came as both Netanyahu and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, speaking at the same conference, backed each other's program on the Middle East peace process. In recent weeks the process has faltered, as the US was unable to wrangle steps that it sought from the parties to jump-start the peace process, and has instead begun focusing on the immediate resumption of negotiations. The prime minister strongly endorsed the negotiations in his speech Monday, and expressed a sincere desire to reach an agreement, even backing the US role in such a process, despite previous reservations about their feasibility. That was an important message for the White House, given its desire to see talks start. "It was a good speech," the senior administration official told the Post. For his part, Emanuel told the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America - where he appeared Tuesday in place of Obama, who canceled to appear at the Fort Hood memorial service that day - that the Obama-Netanyahu meeting had been a good one. He also emphasized that "the prime minister understands deeply the strategic importance of moving the peace process forward." At times in the past, the White House has seemed to be circumventing Netanyahu to speak to the Israeli public about the need for peace, so the personal backing from Obama's chief of staff was seen very favorably by the government. Israeli officials were also pleased by the extent to which the US has seemed to appreciate that Jerusalem has been taking steps - declaring support for a two-state solution, its interest in immediate negotiations and agreeing to a partial settlement freeze - even as the Palestinians have insisted on preconditions. "There is a great understanding that we want to advance peace and that we are taking practical measures to do so, while we have real security needs that the US is prepared to help with," Netanyahu told reporters. "It was positive, serious, and we're hoping that the next few weeks we'll be able to move forward," an Israeli official told the Post of the meeting. "But a lot depends on what happens on the Palestinian side. As far as we're concerned, there's a willingness and a conviction to move forward." He stressed the importance of Netanyahu and Obama having an hour to themselves, to get over the "difficulties" between them in the first few months of each one's term in office. "It was important in terms of the rapport between them. There's so many negative perceptions, and it gave time to defuse them, in the sense that there's the perception which is negative and then there's the reality which is not so bad," the Israeli official said. The senior administration official went further, saying, "We have a very positive and strong relationship." The senior official also stressed that when it came to Iran, a major subject of the meeting, "There is a lot of agreement and a lot of cooperation." Still, the meeting was only scheduled at the last minute and was unaccompanied by a photo-op or any press availability - almost unheard of in visits from the prime minister. Netanyahu even canceled a press briefing that had been scheduled with the Israeli media, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who accompanied Netanyahu at the meeting, canceled several press appearances. Later Barak did say, "My visit and that of Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington and the White House was very important." The defense minister stressed that Obama was attentive to Israel's security needs. The White House downplayed the lack of media presence around the meeting, and Israeli officials indicated that they understood it was not necessarily in the best interests of the peace process to highlight the meeting. It comes at a time when the US administration is under intense pressure from the Palestinians and the Arab world for appearing to backtrack on its demand for a settlement freeze. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened not to run for reelection following praise from the US for Israel's partial settlement freeze. Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein said the two leaders "spoke mostly about Iran and the Palestinians. The meeting was very professional." He, too, discounted reports of a rocky relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. "As opposed to all the horrifying rumors about the possible humiliation of the Israeli prime minister, it was a long working meeting which lasted an hour and a half, and I think that it contributed to the development of the good relations of the two leaders," Edelstein said. He added that the visiting Israeli officials had met with the Senate committee leaders responsible for the sanctions bill against Iran. "They wanted the legislation to move faster. They argued about whether the legislation was necessary for the president to take action," Edelstein said. Tovah Lazaroff and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.


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