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.
Yet at the same time, Israeli officials were already putting a sunny face on the meeting. National Security Adviser Uzi Arad said Netanyahu’s “reception [in the White House] was cordial and friendly in many aspects, and even included rolling-up sleeves and cracking open beer bottles when necessary. … Talk is cheap.” Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser said: “There was a positive meeting, the relationship is sound, the meeting was long and good.”
Netanyahu himself, boarding a plane to Paris on Tuesday night for his meeting there with President Sarkozy, was even more forthright, saying: “Reports about a bad atmosphere are garbage. To put it mildly, they are grossly inaccurate and don’t reflect the truth.”
These statements seemed to get some backing in White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s speech, in place of Obama, to the General Assembly conference on Tuesday, in which he sounded upbeat about U.S.-Israeli relations and denied any tensions over the settlements issue.
What actually happened? It’s not easy to see through the haze of claims and counterclaims. The last-minute scheduling of the meeting and the elision of all pomp and circumstance no doubt give the impression that something was amiss. If, though, Netanyahu’s emphatic assertion that the meeting went well is inaccurate and the U.S. actually still sees him as a peace process delinquent needing rough treatment, then the Middle East learning curve Israelis hope to see in Washington has still not begun.
Abbas is indeed the one who’s threatening to quit. He’s also the one who has steadfastly refused to meet with Netanyahu since Obama took office, while Netanyahu repeats almost with every breath his willingness to negotiate with Abbas without preconditions. If Thomas Friedman can cynically claim that Israel “wants negotiations with the Palestinians without any deal,” Abbas can easily test whether it’s true by finally holding talks with Netanyahu. If Israel indeed emerged as the intractable party, then Abbas would emerge the diplomatic winner and pressures on Israel would only intensify.
If, as Elliott Abrams and others argue, it was Obama who, by initially demanding of Netanyahu a total settlement freeze with which no Israeli prime minister could have complied, pushed Abbas into making a similar demand that he now can’t climb down from, then again the party responsible for the diplomatic logjam is Obama himself. What is not warranted in any case is further blame and pressure directed at Netanyahu, who has done his best to modify longstanding positions, including opposition to a Palestinian state, in deference to Obama’s expectations.
Are we witnessing the Washington tradition of casting Bibi as bad boy? The picture is still uncertain. If the diplomatic process is indeed unraveling, then rather than blaming the Western — that is, Israeli or American — side, one might ask if it ever could have worked in the first place given that Hamas is now in control of Gaza, the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza are bitterly divided, and in 2008 Abbas had already flatly rejected a generous peace offer from then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
That would be real learning and would entail thinking about new approaches instead of the same old one that keeps failing.