Policy Talk Precedes Obama-Netanyahu Meeting

News Analysis

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published April 22, 2009.
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It’s like any courtship: Before Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu get to the big dance, they’ve got to learn the steps.

Delicate negotiations over Middle East policy between the two young administrations have delayed a first meeting between the two men as leaders — but not for long.

Instead of meeting in the second week of May, as had been rumored, the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister are likely to get together by the end of that month, according to the officials at U.S. Jewish organizations who routinely bridge the two governments.

An earlier May meeting had been bruited as a possibility because Netanyahu had hoped to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference, which begins May 3.

Officials emphasized that it’s not just disagreements on how to frame policy creating the delay. Both leaders are preoccupied with other fraught matters: Obama with the economy and Netanyahu with an unwieldy coalition that already is showing strain.

Obama’s top political adviser told JTA that a meeting was likely soon.

”I think there will be a meeting,” David Axelrod said after addressing the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center Consultation on Conscience here Monday. “That’s in the works, they had a good conversation” when they spoke on the phone after Netanyahu assumed office earlier this month. “Of course he wants to meet with him. I think that will happen in the very near future.”

In remarks after meeting Tuesday with Jordanian King Abdullah II, Obama also said he would meet with Netanyahu, although he did not say when. He expressed sympathy for the Israeli prime minister’s coalition-building difficulties.

“It was a very complicated process for” the Israeli government “to put a coalition together, they are going to have to formulate and solidify position,” the president said before adding immediately, “We can’t talk forever.”

He said wants to see concrete measures from Israel and the Palestinians over “the next several months.”

“What we want to do is step back from the abyss,” Obama said. “As hard it is, as difficult as it may be, the prospect of peace still exists.”

First, though, terms must be set, and the sides are now working through a “two-state solution” two-step: The United States insists the prospect of Palestinian statehood is paramount; the Netanyahu government would prefer not to address the issue for now.

That was reflected less in direct exchanges and more in the passive aggressive drama that unfolded last week between Netanyahu and George Mitchell, Obama’s top Middle East peace envoy.

The first step in the dance came when an unnamed Netanyahu official broke the government’s silence last week on the issue of Palestinian statehood, telling Israeli media that the new government requires explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel’s status as a Jewish state. The leak came just as Mitchell was in the region meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

On the Friday afternoon of April 17 — evening in Israel and the Sabbath — the State Department posted online without comment two videos of Mitchell’s tour, both consisting almost entirely of the envoy’s reaffirmation of two states.

“Policy of the United States under President Obama is clear,” Mitchell said in one of the clips, flanked by U.S. and Israeli flags. “Beyond any doubt it is in the United States’ national interest that there be a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East which would include settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution involving a Palestinian state living side by side alongside the Jewish state of Israel in peace and hopefully stability and prosperity.”

That was followed by Netanyahu’s partial retraction, issued as a “clarification” on Sunday.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insistent in his approach that recognition of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People is a matter of substance and principle that enjoys wide recognition in the country and around the world, without which it will not be possible to advance the diplomatic process and reach a peace settlement,” his office said in a statement. “However, the prime minister has never set this as a pre-condition for the opening of negotiations and dialogue with the Palestinians.”

That appears to be one step closer to a formula that would allow Israel to participate in Palestinian statehood negotiations without actually saying so.

Axelrod told JTA that the issue would be addressed when Obama and Netanyahu meet, and that the leaders “will have a full discussion about that.”

Earlier, describing the two-state solution, he had told the Reform audience, “We want to see momentum moving forward, not backward” on Palestinian statehood.

The statehood question is not the only issue that needs working out.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is close to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said that Israel’s settlement expansion meant that it was lagging behind the Palestinian Authority in meeting peace process goals.

“The Palestinians have fulfilled their commitments” to begin maintaining security, said Indyk, now head of the Saban Center think tank, during a session at the Anti-Defamation League’s national leadership conference in Washington. On the other hand, he added, Israel was not freezing settlements, as it had committed in the “road map” peace plan outlined by President George W. Bush in 2002-03.

“The U.S. and Israel are on some sort of collision course,” Indyk said.

Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser in the previous administration, told the ADL audience that the critical element in the failure to advance the peace process was an unready Palestinian leadership.

“We do not have a Palestinian leadership that can or will” agree to a deal, Abrams said.

He advised the Palestinians to emulate prestate Zionists and to build institutions until they were ready for statehood.

There are fewer differences when it comes to Iran, where close U.S.-Israel consultations continue on coordinating a unified policy.

Despite the slowdown in top-level U.S.-Israel political contacts necessitated by Netanyahu’s efforts to pull together his government, top career officials have continued meeting on the matter. In recent weeks, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli military chief of staff, and Meir Dagan, the Mossad chief, have been in Washington for meetings led by Dennis Ross dealing specifically with the Obama administration’s review of how to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Past statements by Ross, the Obama administration’s top Iran policy official, suggest that the sanctions component of such a policy will be far reaching and will be coupled with Obama’s diplomatic outreach to the Islamic Republic.

Obama said Tuesday that he is still committed to outreach, despite further inflammatory rhetoric from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a U.N. conference in Geneva, where he described Israel as “racist.”

Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric was “appalling” and “harmful,” Obama said, but added that his outreach to Iran was on track.

“We’re under no illusions,” the U.S. leader said. “Iran is a very complicated country with a lot of different power centers. The Supreme Leader Khameini is the person who exercises the most control over the policies of the Islamic Republic.”

Obama said he would “continue to pursue the possibility of improved relations and a resolution of some of the issues,” citing specifically nuclear issues.

“Tough, direct diplomacy has to be pursued without taking a whole host of other options off the table,” he said.

Netanyahu says he welcomes outreach, as long as it is backed by tough economic measures, among the “other options” alluded to by Obama.

In one of his last speeches on Monday as Israel’s ambassador, Sallai Meridor told the ADL conference that talk alone would not stop Iran’s enrichment of uranium.

“They would like to talk and spin at the same time,” he said, “or as somebody told me yesterday, they would like to at the same time both spin the talks and the centrifuges.”

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