Editor's Notes: Behind closed doors

Editors Notes Behind c

For more than an hour they sat together, one-on-one - two excellent communicators with a great deal to say to each other, and a great deal at stake. It was agreed that the content of their discussions would remain private. So the following should be considered somewhat speculative... When the prime minister went in, inconspicuously - no sleek limousine, no photo-op - there were fundamental differences between them. The president believed that Israel had not been as helpful as it could have been in the cause of its own well-being and that of the United States. Why was a complete settlement freeze so unconscionable? Nobody was asking the prime minister to dismantle anything, just not to expand. And not forever. Merely for a limited period, as a sign of goodwill, a means to enable progress elsewhere. The president had heard from his envoys that the whole Arab world spoke as one: Stop the settlements. You have to get Israel to stop the settlements. Then, everything is possible. Mahmoud Abbas will be able to come back to the peace table, without being depicted as the American-Israeli poodle. And we, or at least some of us, will begin that gradual process of normalization you've been demanding. The president was firmly of the opinion, furthermore, that the road to concerted pressure on Iran would be smoothed by advances toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Make headway in tackling that constant sore, he had always been convinced, and you deny the mullahs their best pretext for wielding Islam against the West. The president recognized that the prime minister, undeniably a skilled political operator bent on survival, was also, absolutely, seeking to do right by Israel, and was, potentially, an ideal partner. The prime minister had crossed the ideological Rubicon. The prime minister had internalized that there simply weren't enough Jews between the river and the sea, and weren't ever going to be, to obviate the need for a territorial separation in which the Palestinians would gain their independence. And since he was the right-of-center leader of a widely supported coalition, interim steps or more substantive deals that the prime minister accepted would not have to be forced through the Knesset on nail-bitingly narrow margins, but would enjoy automatically robust Israeli majorities. The president knew it had been argued that he'd made some missteps of his own. That in his communications with the Arab world, for instance, he'd not done enough to stress Israel's historic right to, well, Israel. That he'd not been sufficiently sensitive in preparing the prime minister for that full-freeze demand; his secretary of state had dropped that as a real bombshell, when the prime minister had been anticipating at least a little leeway in east Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. But still, he felt, the prime minister might have been more accommodating, more cognizant that the real prize here was a non-nuclear Iran. With stakes that high, a lost building project here and there in deepest Judea and Samaria was surely a sacrifice worth making. Was that so hard to understand? And some of the president's men had been rather irritated at the whispering campaign against him and members of his administration. He truly saw himself as a friend, trying to rescue Israel from global demonization, to steer it to peace, to thwart the Iranians, to confront Islamic extremism. He didn't deserve to be misrepresented as lukewarm or, worse still, hostile. THEY QUICKLY separated from their respective colleagues and advisers and sat together for more than an hour. Just the two of them. "Starting over" would be too dramatic a characterization. No, they hadn't quite gotten off on the right foot all those months back. There'd been some misunderstandings and some politicking. But it was never as bad as some had described it. And that was history now anyway, if not exactly ancient history. So they looked back and then they looked forward. But they did so with the leader of the free world having impressed upon the prime minister - the experienced, worldly, unusually popular prime minister of a feisty, embattled nation - that here, in this room, in this relationship, he was, nonetheless, a guest, even a supplicant. The president made clear that he had no intention of following a prominent columnist's recent suggestion that he take a diplomatic time-out, that he disengage from the effort at peacemaking. No, he had set out his goals, and he intended to pursue them. Specifying what he had identified as the best way to proceed, the president indicated that all he wanted was for the prime minister to boost Israel's own interests, to aid the Palestinians (surely, another Israeli interest) and to help the United States (unquestionably, a prime Israeli interest). These were not concessions he was seeking, but moves, first and foremost, to benefit Israel. Furthermore, the president stressed, he would be looking for meaningful moves from the Palestinian side as well. The prime minister wouldn't be the man he is if he hadn't tried to amend, to finesse, even to argue. This was a frank discussion between allies, after all. Moreover, it was he who had assiduously sought the meeting; he had some suggestions of his own - creative ideas that might help pave the way to resumed negotiations, and security safeguards Israel would need if those talks were to bear fruit. He wouldn't be the man he is if he hadn't highlighted that the Palestinians and their Arab backers loathed Israel and wanted it gone in its first two sovereign decades as well - when there was no "occupation" and no settlement enterprise. If he hadn't spoken passionately of the Jewish return to the biblical heartlands, of the pioneering generations who were reviving ancient Judea and Samaria. If, while restating his desire to meet Abbas at the negotiating table immediately, without preconditions, hoping for the kind of genuine progress that would deflate Hamas, he hadn't also raised his misgivings about Abbas's inclination and capacity to agree to even the most beneficial of accords. If he hadn't reiterated the contention that had fallen on such stony ground when he had made it in May, at their last, awkward tete-a-tete: First it was necessary to stop Iran, cow the extremists and bolster the moderates. Then, intensive efforts on the Palestinian front would have a more realistic prospect of success. The prime minister is a confident man, a man who feels the weight of his national responsibilities, a man of well-developed ideology tempered by pragmatism, an articulate man. But he was sitting with the leader of the free world. He was sitting with a man who knows that his personal convictions have been endorsed by the voters of the greatest democratic nation the world has ever known. Such a man, so peerlessly empowered, is not easily shifted. THE PRIME minister accepted that, this time, the substance of their dialogue would have to be kept discreet. The president didn't want to hear distortions or read selective leaks. In very best Soviet news agency style, they could note that, yes indeed, they had discussed the Palestinian issue. The Iranian issue. Even the Syrian issue. Matters of mutual interest. But only the subject headings. Not the text. Certainly, they could publicly characterize their conversation as constructive and serious, positive and cordial, warm and open. Emphatically not angry or confrontational. They could acknowledge not to have agreed on everything, but stress how well they worked together and how important it was that they could have discussions that were this intensive. And that, indeed, was a fair description. But it had not been a meeting of equals. How could it be? THE PRIME minister left the building as unobtrusively as he had entered it. The photographer's stills were consigned to internal White House records, the scheduled briefings for the skeletal traveling Israeli press team were canceled. The president conveyed the essence of their conversation to his team, sparing nothing of real importance, knowing that they would respect his insistence on discretion. The prime minister gave a more partial accounting to his companions, being uncomfortable with a little of the content, and trusting their silence less. Both sides contested the notion, subsequently raised in some ill-disciplined quarters, that theirs had been something far less than a harmonic meeting of minds. As agreed, the public statements from both sides stressed the heartfelt dialogue, the positive interaction of allies working well together. But from the White House there also came a comment that demonstrated who was answering to whom, via an unnamed source quoted by all three Israeli TV news channels: The prime minister had assured the president, said the source, that he wasn't trying to play games or buy time or do anything to seek to avoid a substantive diplomatic process with the Palestinians. And from the president's side, too, there came the mild observation that practical steps were now needed from both sides - that while such meetings were important, it was what happened between the meetings that really counted. A banal and undeniable observation, perhaps, yet one that indicated how keenly Washington would now be anticipating both declarative and concrete action back in the Middle East.