Speaking at Monday’s Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded very much like a man who didn’t want to antagonize the president he was about to meet under visibly strained circumstances.
Several hours later the White House distributed a meeting “readout” that may have set a new record for brevity. Amid an almost total clampdown on leaks, the statement said only that the two leaders “discussed a number of issues in the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship” and that President Barack Obama “reaffirmed our strong commitment to Israel’s security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues.”
Is this the Big Chill some Jewish leaders have feared since a new Democratic administration hit town with big ambitions for quick progress in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and little foreign policy experience?
Most analysts say no, although many also say this week’s contretemps points to continued confusion and uncertainty in an administration that once saw a direct path to Israeli-Palestinian peace progress, but now sees a dense tangle of conflicting interests.
“The president rightly believes the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a critical American national interest, and wants to do something about it,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and a former State Department official with extensive peace process experience. “On the other hand, a conflict-ending agreement on the core issues is out of reach. It’s reconciling those two realities that should keep people awake at night, not the question of whether or not to see Benjamin Netanyahu when he’s here to address the GA.”
There’s little debate in Washington that the administration made the Israeli leader jump through hoops to get a meeting with the president while in town. But there is a lot of uncertainty about exactly what that means.
What is clear is an emerging consensus that cuts across political and ideological lines that Obama administration Middle East policy is increasingly confused and inconsistent.
“There’s something dumb about what’s going on here,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “You can’t say one day that Netanyahu has done more than any other prime minister on settlements — as Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton said — and the next day freeze the prime minister out. What I see is a lack of leadership; this administration is starting to look like a very clever public relations operation that does not have control over policy making. And it’s not just in foreign policy.”
But the back and forth over this week’s meeting may also reflect administration anger that “the Netanyahu government has been bad-mouthing this president all over the place,” said a veteran pro-Israel leader here who asked not to be identified. “You don’t have a president who refuses to appear on camera with an Israeli prime minister without something going on.”
With both sides going silent, figuring out exactly what is going on could take weeks, this observer said.
Despite concern by some that Netanyahu would use his GA appearance to galvanize political opposition to any new U.S. pressure on his government on settlements and other critical peace process issues, the Israeli leader seemed determined to avoid making news.
Introduced as the “leader of Israel and the leader of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu was careful to praise the president who would host him later in the day and to avoid even indirect challenges to the confused policies coming out of the White House in recent weeks.
“I believe there is no time to waste,” he told delegates to the organization that is coping with the continued impact of the economic downturn and continued uncertainty about its role. “We need to move towards peace with a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose. I want to be clear. My goal is not to have endless negotiations. My goal is not negotiations for negotiations’ sake. My goal is to reach a peace treaty, and soon. But to get a peace agreement, we must start negotiating. Let’s stop talking about negotiations. Let’s start moving.”
He said the Palestinians must “abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees, give up irredentist claims to the Negev and Galilee, and declare unequivocally that the conflict is finally over.”
Netanyahu, speaking to a group that gave him a less enthusiastic welcome at the 1997 General Assembly in the midst of the “who is a Jew” debate, also said “any Jew, of any denomination, will always have the right to come home to the Jewish state. Religious pluralism and tolerance will always guide my policy.”
In a jab at Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose threatened withdrawal as a candidate in next year’s Palestinian elections was another monkey wrench in the administration’s plans and who has said he won’t come back to the peace table without a total Israeli settlement freeze, Netanyahu said “We should not place preconditions for holding talks. Such obstacles to talks were never set in the 16 years of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. … And no Israeli government has been so willing to restrain settlement activity as part of an effort to re-launch peace talks.”
Curiously, the prime minister did not dwell on Iran — the overwhelming focus of Israeli outreach in this country — and he was careful to admit no differences with the U.S. administration over the issue.
“The responsible members of the international community must unite to prevent this grave threat to the peace of the entire world,” he said, “and I appreciate the firm position taken by the leading European countries. We must not succumb to the Iranian regime’s deceit and cunning. We must stand together to stop Tehran from realizing its nuclear ambitions.”
“He spent more time talking about energy independence than about Iran,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and co-author of “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.”
“He didn’t want to be seen as someone who was pushing the administration at a critical juncture on Iran policy; he was extremely careful.”
Makovsky said that while both leaders are trying to improve the atmospherics in their relationship, the substance of that relationship is far from clear.
“What we have is a public music that’s getting better on both sides,” he said. “What we don’t know: Does that public music reflect what went on inside the meeting on Monday? It’s in neither party’s interests for there to be a public chill, but the question remains whether this really reflects their personal relationship.”
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, speaking to the GA after Obama was forced to cancel a scheduled speech so he could attend the memorial for the Fort Hood shooting victims, challenged Jewish leaders who say the administration’s tough stance on settlements reflects declining support for Israel.
“That is not the case and it never will be,” he said. “The truth is the opposite. Only through dialogue will Israel achieve the peace it seeks.”
In a victory for Netanyahu, he echoed the prime minister’s comments that there should be “no preconditions” for resumed talks.
Emanuel called Monday’s Obama-Netanyahu meeting “very positive,” but offered no details.
Emanuel’s speech “hit some important notes that have been missing from the administration,” Makovsky said. “For the first time, the administration publicly stated that they are convinced Netanyahu really is committed to moving the peace process forward.”
But other analysts said this week’s developments pointed to an administration whose regional policy remains muddled — at best.
The administration has already won significant concessions from Netanyahu on settlements, said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), “but they don’t know how to say ‘we did it,’ and move on from there. Instead, they are clumsily trying to get Bibi to do more, which is a major mistake. But there’s not a whole lot more Netanyahu can do.”
Bryen said the administration might be guided by a mistaken notion that it can work around Netanyahu by giving him the freeze treatment while appealing directly to the Israeli people.
“The administration seems to think they can work with pressure from Bibi’s left,” she said. “But the left is in this government, and the left in Israel has shifted. They seem to have missed that.”
With the details of this week’s meeting tightly held and the public atmospherics murky, analysts warn that predicting the next steps in U.S.-Israel relations is difficult.
“Clearly, Obama used the meeting with Bibi to signal displeasure,” said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political consultant and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. “This is the first sign of administration pressure and it comes too late with regard to the settlement freeze issue, which the administration botched. But additional forms of pressure, presumably on settlements and conditions for negotiations, are a third option.”