Diplomacy: A photo-op with meaning

It was not a given that the Obama-Netanyahu public appearance on Monday would go smoothly, since that has not always been the case in the past. That it did is not without significance.

Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Barack Obama at a meeting at the White House on November 9, 2015 (photo credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)
Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Barack Obama at a meeting at the White House on November 9, 2015
(photo credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)
After the fact, it all seemed so obvious.
It seemed so obvious – at least after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a downright harmonious and cordial photo opportunity Monday in the Oval Office – that, indeed, that press appearance would be harmonious and cordial.
It seemed so obvious – at least after they made their brief statements to the press – that the two leaders who waged such a passionate and public battle for months over the Iran deal over the summer would want to have an amiable public appearance to show that they were burying the hatchet, letting bygones be bygones.
But it wasn’t obvious, and it wasn’t a given. It was, however, significant.
Little has emerged about the actual content of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting on Monday, beyond innocuous comments from both sides saying that it was held in a good atmosphere and was productive, and Netanyahu’s public assessment that it was the best of the 16 meetings he has held with the president.
But we don’t really know – at least not yet. We don’t know if voices were raised, or if the exchanges were sharp, or if Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress was referenced, or what indeed was agreed regarding ensuring implementation of the Iran deal, or whether understandings were reached regarding the Palestinians.
We don’t know if warm handshakes were exchanged, or fists pounded on the table.
All we truly know is what we saw. And what we saw is what the leaders wanted us to see, which is that they were now in sync, in harmony, stressing what unites the two countries rather than what divides them. And that was not a given, and did not have to be that way. In fact, in the past it was not that way.
When Obama and Netanyahu first met in the White House in May 2009, Obama did not want the meeting to look overly harmonious. On the contrary, the new president came into power keen on pursuing – as Dennis Ross wrote in his new book Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama – an “anything but Bush” policy in the Mideast.
As a result, at that meeting the president blindsided Netanyahu with a demand for a complete settlement freeze. He had an interest in not having a harmonious public sit-down with Netanyahu in order to set a new tone – to show there was a new sheriff in town, and that the new sheriff had no favorites. This meeting underlined the new US approach – that daylight with Israel was not only acceptable but even something to be highlighted. And that meeting served as a bright, yellow underline marker.
The following year, Netanyahu traveled to Washington for the annual AIPAC meeting. This visit came at a most inopportune moment: shortly after the disastrous visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Israel, a visit derailed by the announcement of new housing in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. Obama refused to have a public meeting with Netanyahu, sending a sharp, angry message to Netanyahu that was seen the world over.
This is what The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl wrote at the time: “Tuesday night the White House refused to allow nonofficial photographers to record the president’s meeting with Netanyahu; no statement was issued afterward. Netanyahu is being treated as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator, needed for strategic reasons but conspicuously held at arm’s length.”
Fast-forward a year to May 2011, and Netanyahu again traveled to Washington for the annual AIPAC policy conference. But just hours before he boarded the plane, Obama delivered his first significant speech on the Middle East following the “Arab Spring” and infuriated Netanyahu by breaking with past US declarations and using the 1967 lines, albeit with mutual land swaps, as the baseline for a future agreement with the Palestinians.
Motivated to a degree by domestic political considerations, wanting to be seen as able to stand up to the US president, Netanyahu opted to issue a sharp and angry reaction to that speech. And then, at the photo opportunity that accompanied their meeting, he used it to school the president in Jewish and Mideast history, in comments that have since become known as the “lecture.”
“Israel wants peace. I want peace. What we all want is a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure,” Netanyahu said.
“The only peace that will endure is one that is based on reality, on unshakable facts. I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities.”
As Netanyahu spoke, Obama sat tensely with clenched jaw.
It is clear, therefore, that amiable photo-ops between the two men are not a given.
And it is telling that they decided to have one this time around – despite the bad blood of the last 10 months, extending back to Netanyahu’s acceptance of the invitation to address Congress regarding the Iran deal.
First of all, this meeting was telling for what was said, with both men saying what the other wanted to hear.
For instance, with Israel interested in significantly increasing the 10-year military aid package beginning in 2017 from the current level of some $3 billion a year to some $5b. annually, it was important for Obama to say that this was not a gift to Israel but an investment in US security.
Hearing that from this president will take some of the air out of the criticism that giving such a generous package to Israel at a time of severe budgetary problems in the US is surely to engender.
“The military assistance that we provide, we consider not only an important part of our obligation to the security of the State of Israel but also an important part of US security infrastructure in the region, as we make sure that one of our closest allies can not only protect itself but can also work with us in deterring terrorism and other security threats,” Obama said.
In other words, this aid is good – not only for Israel but also for the US – for fighting terrorism and other threats.
No less significant was the following Obama comment about the contentious Iran deal: “It’s no secret that the prime minister and I have had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue, but we don’t have a disagreement on the need to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and we don’t have a disagreement about the importance of us blunting destabilizing activities that Iran may be taking place.”
The use of the word “narrow” here was important, a carefully crafted signal to the world that while there was a quarrel about the Iran accord, it was over just that – the Iran accord – and should not be interpreted as a wider rift in Israel-US ties.
Regarding the Palestinians, Obama’s reiteration of Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of the current round of terrorism was obviously welcomed in Jerusalem. As, too, was the absence in his words of any pie-in-the sky hope of solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by the time he leaves office in January 2017.
Instead, Obama spoke much more soberly about lowering the “temperature between Israeli and Palestinians,” and finding a way back to a peace process based on a political process that ensures “legitimate Palestinian aspirations” as well as Israel’s ability to secure itself.
Nothing there about the 1967 lines, or a settlement freeze, or stopping construction in Jerusalem. In short, nothing to poison the atmosphere.
Netanyahu, for his part, also obliged in the creation of a positive atmosphere. He pledged allegiance to the twostate solution, which Obama always wants to hear, and said that no one should doubt Israel’s willingness either to defend itself or to make peace with any of its neighbors “that genuinely want to achieve peace with us.”
After screaming from the highest rooftops for months about the Iranian deal, Netanyahu didn’t even mention that agreement or the disagreement surrounding it, and made a point of thanking Obama for bolstering Israel’s security.
Though the statements may have been short on substance, they sent important signals to various constituencies.
To the world the message was that reports of an unprecedented US-Israel rift are exaggerated. The Iran disagreement was, as Obama said, a narrow disagreement.
And that was an important message to send to those around the world interested – perhaps – in exploiting any public daylight between Israel and the US.
For instance, had the Europeans seen Obama beat up on Netanyahu, they could have easily interpreted that as a green light for them to do the same, even more so.
Likewise, this was an important message to send to the Arab world – that Obama, in his last year in office, should not be expected to turn the screws on Israel, or abandon it.
This was an important message, as well, for Obama to send to his domestic audience, especially to Democratic lawmakers up for reelection and in need of support from pro-Israel Jewish donors and voters. Yet another public scuffle with Netanyahu is not something they need at the present.
Netanyahu, likewise, had an interest in creating positive optics. Not only so that the world – and Israel’s enemies – would take note, but also to suck the oxygen out of the argument used by his political opponents on the Left: that he is destroying US-Israel ties.
If that is indeed the case, it certainly was not on public display on Monday.