PM, Obama: No full agreement, no surprises

Analysis: Obama’s words didn’t surprise Netanyahu, and the PM's didn’t lead Obama to clench his fist around his arm rest.

Obama Netanyahu smiling happy meeting 390 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Obama Netanyahu smiling happy meeting 390
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Unlike their first meeting in May 2009, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not look surprised on Monday in the Oval Office by anything US President Barack Obama said during statements that preceded their long-awaited meeting on Iran.
This time there was no unexpected announcement by the president, as there was during that first parley, when Obama – completely unbeknownst to Netanyahu beforehand – called for a total settlement freeze.
And unlike their last meeting in May 2011, Obama did not clench his fist around the arm of his chair when Netanyahu spoke, as he did last time when the prime minister launched into what was interpreted by many in the administration as a lecture by Netanyahu on why Israel could not return to the pre-1967 lines.
No, this time there were no surprises. What Obama said during the 10 minutes of statements to reporters and what Netanyahu said were the same statements both leaders articulated at different moments over the last few days.
Obama took the opportunity to highlight a number of points. The first was that he personally is committed to the “unbreakable” bond between the two countries.
Or, as he put it, “We will always have Israel’s back.”
It is important for Obama to stress this point over and over in the run-up to the November elections in order to reassure some American Jews who have their doubts.
Secondly – and with all the discussion about Iran, this was somewhat unexpected – Obama did mention the Palestinian diplomatic track. While it was sticking to the degree to which the Palestinian issue had been shunted aside on this visit, that he mentioned it at all – something Netanyahu did not do – seemed to be a signal to the Palestinians that they have not been forgotten, even though reaching a solution in the near future might be “a difficult thing to do in light of the context right now.”
And thirdly, with regards to Iran, Obama had a multifaceted message: First, that a nuclear Iran was not just an Israeli problem, but an American one as well; second, that there was still time through diplomatic channels to get Iran to change its mind on pursuing nuclear arms; and thirdly, that all options are on the table, and “when I say all options are on the table, I mean it.”
What Obama did not do was go any further – as some in Jerusalem had hoped – than using the “all options” language. And here Obama sent a signal to Israel, as if to say, “I will do things the way I see fit; don’t push me. I will determine how far I want to go.”
Netanyahu’s message was not as multifaceted, but was clear. Even after Obama said that Iran is not only Israel’s problem, but a profound one for the US, Netanyahu rammed that point home, saying that for Iran’s leaders, “You are the great Satan; we are the little Satan. For them, we are you and you are us, and at least on this last point, Mr. President, they are right. We are you, and you are us.”
With this, Netanyahu was forcefully trying to reframe the issue that over the past few months has increasingly become one of Iran versus Israel.
No, Netanyahu said, it was just as much Iran versus America.
And his second major message was that – with all the background noise, with all the media speculation about the difficulties of an attack on Iran, or what it would lead to, with all the warnings from foreign leaders – Israel was still a sovereign nation and would make decisions related to its security on its own.
If Obama was unwilling to go beyond his “everything’s on the table” statement, Netanyahu was unwilling to roll back his “we will act if we must” rhetoric.
Obama’s words didn’t surprise Netanyahu, and Netanyahu’s didn’t lead Obama to clench his fist around his armrest. These are the messages that the two capitals have been passing back and forth for weeks.
Maybe there has been no full agreement, but so far there have also been no surprises.