Diplomacy: 'Good, very good' vs. 'frank and productive'

Diplomacy Good, very g

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was very much in his element here this week, speaking from the UN podium, giving interviews to the US electronic media and addressing Jewish organizational leaders. Between his first meeting with US President Barack Obama on Tuesday and his last meeting with Jewish leaders Thursday evening, he gave interview after interview to the electronic media: CNN, ABC, Fox News, NBC and finally Charlie Rose at PBS. Netanyahu was transferred back some 25 years, to a simpler time - at least for him - a time when he was younger, when he was fresher, when he was the country's whiz kid diplomat, the articulate defender of Israel as it's envoy to the UN. And he visibly enjoyed going back. At first unsure whether he wanted to give television interviews, Netanyahu changed his mind with a vengeance following the tripartite meeting with Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, a meeting he thought went especially well. Following those talks the prime minister felt confident enough of the situation to go to the US media and convey Israel's message: The settlements are not what is holding up peace talks, Palestinian preconditions are; Iran is the world's problem, not only Israel's; and the Goldstone Commission report that accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza was - as he said on CNN - "preposterous." Indeed, Netanyahu was having such a good time after he did CNN, ABC, Fox and NBC, that he called Defense Minister Ehud Barak and asked if he would move to the side and vacate a slot reserved for him on the Charlie Rose show, so he could sit in the seat across from the PBS's interviewer. Barak obliged, saying this week was Netanyahu's show. A funny thing, however, happened on the way to explaining Israel's position to the American public: Netanyahu overlooked - or took for granted - the Israeli media. As a result, the bilateral and trilateral meetings he held Tuesday were painted in underwhelming tones in the Israeli press on Wednesday. "There has never been such a hollow ceremony," Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea, wrote of the meetings, which took place in a gilded, brown motifed room in New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, biblical-looking figures painted - Michelangelo-like - on the ceiling and looking down on the proceedings. Barnea added that while Netanyahu might feel as if he scored a victory in New York, he should keep in mind the lesson the Middle East gives all its winners: "In this region, the short-term winner loses in the long-term." Talk about raining on a guy's parade. Here Netanyahu scored what he obviously felt was a not inconsiderable achievement, and all the Israeli press could do was paint it in the negative. So Netanyahu decided to devote time to the Israeli press. As a result, between Charles Wilson on ABC and Charlie Rose on PBS, Netanyahu granted brief interviews with key Israeli media outlets including The Jerusalem Post, for as important as a good interview on NBC might be, Netanyahu's bread is buttered in Israel, and it is there that he felt the need to hone the message. And it is clear that what Netanyahu felt the Israeli press missed was that his meeting with Obama alone, and then together with Abbas, went well. In fact, while Obama characterized the talks as "frank and productive," Netanyahu termed them "good, very good." Both men were at the same talks, and the difference in the adjectives selected to describe them speaks volumes about each leader's different perspective. FOR OBAMA, the talks were indeed "frank" - diplomatese for "tough and testy" - as the president, according to US sources, impatiently urged the sides to get on with it. Obama couldn't characterize the talks as good, because they fell way short of his expectations. He had wanted a dramatic declaration of a renewal of negotiations, a declaration that was to be made possible by an announcement of an Israeli settlement freeze and by normalization gestures from the Arab world. Neither materialized, though a settlement moratorium is proving easier for him than getting the Saudis to ante up any gestures. Obama had wanted to place a framework for negotiations before the world leaders gathered in New York, and to be able to articulate the principles that would guide those negotiations. He got none of that. Instead, as The Washington Post editorialized, he got a glorified photo opportunity. His dreams of pushing a 100-year old conflict to a quick resolution by the force of his personality and rhetorical skills crashed on the jagged rocks of Middle Eastern reality. His ideas might look good on paper - the Israelis give a little, the Arab world gives a little and everybody lives happily ever after - but the reality is just that much more difficult to finesse. What if the Saudis - a key if there is to be peace with the Arab world - are ideologically unable to give anything until Israel gives everything? And what if Israel - tempered by the harsh reality of the 16 years since Oslo - is not exactly in a giving mood anymore? Then the result is "frank and productive talks," not "good, very good" ones. But not for Netanyahu. No, for him these talks were indeed good. Just how good was made clear by what he said in a press briefing held immediately after the trilateral meeting on Tuesday. "I don't think there were any winners or losers here," he said, a clear sign he felt the victor, because victors are generally the ones able to make so gracious a statement after a contest. "This gathering in the wake of a renewal of negotiations is good for everyone: good for us, good for the US and good for the Palestinians." "Especially good for me," he very well could have added. To understand this, consider where things stood in May, and where they are today. In May, Obama ambushed a newly elected Netanyahu with a demand for a total settlement freeze. Not a settlement slowdown, not restraint, not building only for natural growth, but a complete halt everywhere, including in Jerusalem. Or, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - the great articulator of this policy and denier of any understandings on the matter with the Bush administration - said just two weeks after the maiden Obama-Netanyahu meeting, "With respect to settlements, the president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. "We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point." That was then. On Tuesday Obama backed down, talking not of a complete settlement freeze, but rather of "steps to restrain settlement activity." Even during his speech to the UN on Wednesday, Obama - while reiterating the position that "we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" - stopped short of calling again for a settlement construction halt. And it was not only Obama who changed his tune, so did Abbas. Netanyahu had to be pleased that Abbas - who said he would not meet him until all settlement construction ended - did indeed meet him in New York. Netanyahu was also pleased that Obama stressed the need for the negotiations to start immediately, placing the onus on Abbas, since while Netanyahu has said consistently he was willing to sit down and talk tomorrow, it was Abbas who placed a condition on the talks that he had never placed before: an absolute settlement construction freeze. And the third reason why Netanyahu could characterize the talks as "good, very good" was because he survived them with his coalition intact. Not only that, but the heads of his two main coalition parties - Avigdor Lieberman from Israel Beiteinu and Ehud Barak from Labor - were actually in the talks, sitting in the room. As a result, Lieberman cannot now accuse Netanyahu of giving away too much, nor can Barak accuse him of giving too little. They both know what was discussed, where things stand and where they are headed. And they both sat next to Netanyahu in his press briefing, listened to him characterize the talks as "good, very good," and articulated no reservations - something that makes the good and very good for Netanyahu even better.