Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has spent a number of hours over the last few days writing the speech he will deliver at the AIPAC annual conference in Washington, a speech sources in his office described on Sunday as “very important.”
Netanyahu is expected to discuss Iran and outline his approach and Israel’s commitment to the peace process during Monday’s speech.
The prime minister is also likely to touch on the commitments he gave to the US that seem to have gone a long way toward toning down the crisis that followed an Interior Ministry panel’s announcement, during US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit earlier this month, of the construction of 1,600 housing units in the northeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
Netanyahu, accompanied by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was scheduled to leave for Washington late on Sunday night.
In a sign that the Obama administration was putting the crisis behind it, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell – who arrived on Sunday to work out a framework for proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians – invited Netanyahu to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday evening in Washington.
“We want to reaffirm that the relationship between the United States and Israel is strong and enduring, that our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable and unbreakable. And that’s the way it’s going to remain,” Mitchell said before meeting with the prime minister in Jerusalem.
“Our shared goal – your goal, our goal – is the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in an environment that can result in an agreement that ends the conflict and resolves all permanent-status issues.”
One diplomatic official said that just a week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama’s top aide David Axelrod called the Ramat Shlomo announcement an “insult” and “affront” to both Biden and the US, Netanyahu must have made commitments that pleased the Americans a great deal to merit an audience with the administration’s top echelon.
Just a week ago, the official pointed out, it was not clear whether Netanyahu would even get a meeting with Clinton. Now his schedule includes Obama – who is able to meet him because he canceled a trip to Indonesia and Australia in order to be on hand for a vote on health care reform – Biden, Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He is also expected to meet with top congressional leaders.
Indeed, Netanyahu has canceled a return stopover in Brussels, where he was scheduled to meet NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as well as the prime ministers of the Netherlands and Italy, to accommodate a full schedule of meetings in Washington.
Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Clinton on the sidelines of the AIPAC meeting, which she is also scheduled to address on Monday.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to reveal the contents of the letter that Netanyahu wrote to Clinton after their telephone conversations on Thursday night, saying it was within the realm of confidential correspondence between governments.
Nevertheless, the prime minister referred to the letter at the start of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, saying he did not alter Israel’s policy regarding building in Jerusalem, reportedly one of the conditions the US had asked for.
“Our policy toward Jerusalem is the same policy of all Israeli governments in the past 42 years and it has not changed,” he said. “From our point of view, construction in Jerusalem is like construction in Tel Aviv. These are the things which we have made very clear to the American administration.”
Clinton, in her 45-minute dressing down of Netanyahu on March 12, reportedly asked the prime minister to stop the Ramat Shlomo construction, make more confidence-building gestures to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and agree to deal with the core issues – settlements, border, refugees and Jerusalem – during the indirect talks.
While Netanyahu did not seem to budge on Jerusalem, he did give ground on the issues to be talked about in the indirect talks.
“We also made it clear that in the proximity talks with the Palestinians, while each side will be able to raise its positions on the issues in dispute, a tangible solution to the fundamental problems between us and the Palestinians will be achievable only in direct peace talks,” he said.
“It cannot be otherwise. Only if we sit together, discuss the issues together and reach joint solutions, will we be able to reach a genuine peace agreement.”
Until now Israel only wanted the proximity talks to serve as a technical “corridor” into the direct talks, fearful that the US in the middle would be asked to serve as an arbiter.
Now, however, despite the way Netanyahu phrased the matter at the beginning of the cabinet meeting, he has agreed to deal with these issues during the indirect talks.
Netanyahu said he did not want Israel’s commitments to the US to “be subject to commentary and speculation,” and therefore wrote them in a letter to Clinton. He said he sent the letter after receiving unanimous agreement on it from his colleagues in the seven-member inner cabinet.
“I think that Israel’s position is very clear and it will also be so during my visit to the American capital,” he said.
One element that Netanyahu did not discuss at the cabinet meeting was the goodwill gestures he would make toward the Palestinians in advance of the proximity talks. These measures are believed to be the release of a number of Fatah prisoners.
The confidence-building measures also include a pledge to open up the
borders into Gaza and allow in construction material to enable the
building of a number of UNRWA projects there, including 150 apartments
in Khan Yunis.
The prime minister, however, conditioned this pledge on ensuring that
there be no negative impact on security, or on efforts to free
kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.
Israel also made clear that it expected reciprocal confidence-building
measures from the Palestinians, one diplomatic source said of
Netanyahu’s letter to Clinton.
In the past, Israel has made clear to the US that it expected the PA to
stop incitement and cease its efforts to delegitimize Israel, such as
spearheading international acceptance of the Goldstone Commission