Obama embraces Israel

It remains to be seen whether the positive new glow in US-Israel relations coming out of the latest Washington summit has permanence.

Obama Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Obama Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
When US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu emerged from their meeting at the White House last month, both wore indelible grins and were unremittingly cordial with each other. The Israeli media instantly dubbed it the “smiles summit.” There was simply no trace of the often palpable tensions between the two leaders over the past year.
Both figures went in determined to rebuild a level of mutual trust after Obama’s frosty reception of Netanyahu in their last encounter in Washington in March, when he was reportedly brought in a back door of the White House, no cameras were allowed into the Oval Office, and no joint press conference was held.
Instead, this time the pair eagerly informed the waiting press corps about their “excellent” discussions and the “unbreakable” bonds between the US and Israel. Obama made clear his personal “trust” in Netanyahu and his desire for peace – comments meant to put to rest persistent media reports of soured relations between them.
During their joint press stakeout, the two leaders appeared to deliberately avoid making any discordant comments about settlements or other points of previous contention. Instead, they focused on shared goals, including Obama’s assurances that America will maintain its traditional support for Israel’s reluctance to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – a recent source of great worry in Jerusalem.
“We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us – against it – Israel has unique security requirements. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region,” Obama said. “The United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine its security interests.”
Regarding continued efforts to rein in Iran’s renegade nuclear program, Netanyahu voiced satisfaction with the administration’s current sanctions strategy. “The latest sanctions adopted by the UN create… delegitimization for Iran's nuclear program,” he said. “I think the [US] sanctions the president signed the other day actually have teeth, they bite… If other nations adopted similar sanctions, that would increase the effect.”
Asked whether he had urged Netanyahu to extend the freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank in order to bring the Palestinians into direct talks, Obama responded that he expects direct negotiations to begin “well before the moratorium has expired,” giving Netanyahu some muchneeded political breathing space until the freeze ends in late September. Obama also applauded the “restraint” Netanyahu’s government has shown in recent months in scaling back settlement activity.
Netanyahu assured, in turn, that he was prepared to move forward with more “concrete steps… to move the peace process further along in a very robust way.”
It all seemed too good to be true. Where was the pitiless pressure on those “provocative” settlements? What happened to the dissonance between Jerusalem and Washington over the Iranian threat? How did Obama assuage Israel on the NPT question so quickly? Had these concerns all vanished, or were they still lingering below the surface?
In the days following, both figures engaged in a rare blitz of media appearances to reaffirm and elaborate on their common agenda, indicating there indeed was substance behind the show of warm friendship.
In an interview with Israel TV’s Channel 2, Obama praised Netanyahu as a “smart and savvy” leader who “is well positioned to bring about peace,” despite his hawkish reputation.
Both leaders also called for moving quickly to direct talks with the Palestinian Authority, and each expressed optimism that a final peace deal for creating a Palestinian state could be reached before the president’s first term in office is over in 2012.
Obama’s remarks in particular served to shift the onus to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to finally engage in face-to-face negotiations with Netanyahu, who had somehow managed to avoid a confrontation over extending the 10-month settlement freeze.
Apparently, the Israeli premier reached a tacit understanding with Obama whereby Jerusalem will not be asked to publicly declare a continuation of the freeze when it expires in late September, but in practice Netanyahu promised Obama not to approve hundreds of apartments but individual homes at most. Further, the building will resume only in large “consensus” settlement blocs that Israel expects to annex in a final peace accord, but not in the outlying communities deeper into the West Bank.
In a revealing interview with Fox News, Netanyahu noted that while he agrees that a deal for Palestinian statehood could be concluded within the next two years, it may need to be implemented over time to ensure that certain security measures are in place and working.
Netanyahu disclosed that roughly half of his 90-minute meeting at the White House was taken up with discussing the growing rocket threat from areas of Gaza and south Lebanon vacated by the IDF and the need to prevent this from recurring in the West Bank. Thus any deal would have to initially include an Israeli security presence on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state, he contended, to ensure that heavy weapons are not smuggled in that could threaten Israel’s populated heartland. Obama was said to have been very attentive to the argument.
Netanyahu said he also was pleased to hear Obama assure that he will not let Iran obtain nuclear weapons, an important pledge given the creeping sense in Israel that the US is heading toward containment.
On another crucial issue, the White House had already delivered written assurances to Jerusalem, reiterated by Obama in person, that the US has not altered its traditional commitment to shielding Israel’s presumed nuclear program from international scrutiny. In fact, Obama spelled out with stunning clarity why he thinks Israel should be exempted from signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The US president had also articulated additional pledges of American support in two specific areas critical to Israeli officials. First, that Israel is free to make it own security decisions; and secondly, that Washington will step up its diplomatic efforts to combat the global delegitimization of Israel.
In response to the challenge coming out of the Obama-Netanyahu summit in Washington, Palestinian leaders have sought to douse any hopes of a quick move to direct talks, instead demanding that Israel first impose a complete freeze on building in Jewish settlements, clarify its position on borders and security, and agree to begin talks on the generous terms offered by former Israeli premier Ehud Olmert in December 2008.
Declaring that such talks would be “pointless” at this stage, Abbas has also requested certain American and Israeli guarantees so that the goal and timetable of the negotiations will be clear beforehand – including an undertaking that the borders of a future Palestinian state will be based on the pre-1967 armistice lines.
US special Mideast envoy George Mitchell has just paid a visit to the region and reportedly brought the White House’s official responses to the requested guarantees. Although there have been indications recently that the PA might be buckling to US pressure, Palestinian officials actually added yet another new precondition to direct talks, demanding “a third party presence” in the room during the negotiations, “not only to sit and to watch us, but to intervene.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s post-summit charm offensive has yet to convince most Israelis that the president is now on their side. In a new poll conducted for The Jerusalem Post, only 10 percent of Israeli Jews see Obama’s administration as leaning more pro- Israel, while almost half of the respondents believe he is still more favorable to the Palestinians. These are basically the same results as when the same question was asked in March – at the nadir of the Obama administration’s badgering of Netanyahu over the settlements issue.
So it remains to be seen whether the positive new glow in US-Israel relations coming out of the latest Washington summit has permanence or, as some suspect, will become just a passing moment once Obama’s Democratic Party gets through the November congressional elections.