Bibi Netanyahu Gets the Cold Shoulder in Washington

Though it was overshadowed by other events, particularly the massacre at Fort Hood and its aftermath, there was a meeting in Washington this week between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Obama. Certain anomalies about this meeting inspired a flurry of rumors and speculations -- particularly, though not only, in the Israeli press.

It wasn’t arranged, for one thing, until the last minute, and it wasn’t confirmed until Netanyahu was literally on a plane to Washington -- even though his visit to the U.S. had been announced weeks in advance and both he and Obama were set to address the annual General Assembly conference of the American Jewish community. (Obama ended up canceling to speak at the Fort Hood memorial service instead.) Since it’s customary for the Israeli PM and U.S. president to meet during any visit to the U.S. by the former, the White House’s sluggishness in working Bibi into its schedule was interpreted in Israel as a very cold shoulder.

Netanyahu then found himself transported to the meeting in a simple van instead of the government vehicle normally provided to foreign heads of state. And after he and Obama conversed at a relatively late hour on Monday evening -- joined for the second half of the tête-à-tête by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- conspicuous for their absence were the habitual photo-op and press briefing. Israeli officials, for their part, offered nothing to the eager Israeli media but stony silence, while the White House released the following terse statement: “The president reaffirmed his strong commitment to Israel’s security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues. The president and prime minister also discussed Iran and how to move forward on Middle East peace.”

Especially against the backdrop of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement last week of his desire to resign over frustration at the stalled diplomatic process, the Israeli media reacted to Monday night’s events and non-events with surmises of a huge crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations. Dov Weisglass, a former adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who was closely involved in talks with President Bush, declared: “Clearly, one of two things occurred during the meeting -- a severe crisis and deadlock which the sides do not want to make worse by making it public, or far-reaching understandings that may lead to a domestic crisis in Israel.”

Although the U.S. media for the most part were otherwise preoccupied, an exception was the Wall Street Journal, which quoted a “U.S. official” as expressing disappointment at Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly conference a few hours before the meeting with Obama: “‘We had an idea that he might bring something out to push the process forward. But he’s kept it in his pocket.’… The official said the U.S. side had hoped Mr. Netanyahu would unveil a more detailed proposal for restraining the settlements.” And: “U.S. officials said the White House had held off until late Sunday firming up Mr. Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr. Obama, in an effort to pressure the Israeli leader to take a more conciliatory line.”

Other reports in Israel had it that the White House media blackout after the meeting was as a way of expressing anger at Israeli leaks -- or at claims in Israel that Netanyahu was succeeding in diplomatically outmaneuvering Obama.