The optics were perfect, but the meaning was elusive.
President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat together July 6, joshing and smiling, trying to project a clear message: The rift was over. Israel and the United States are on the same track again.
“In terms of my relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know the press, both in Israel and stateside, enjoys seeing if there’s news there,” Obama said. “But the fact of the matter is that I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president, and have said so both publicly and privately.”
The meeting capped months of tensions sparked by Israel’s announcement in March of a major housing start in East Jerusalem during an official visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.
The image of a friendly encounter between the two leaders was almost tainted in the lead-up to the meeting when it was leaked that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, had warned in a private conversation of a “tectonic rift” between the two countries. Oren later explained that he had been misquoted: “Shift,” he said.
In any case, U.S. officials said in a rare on-the-record call July 2, there is no fissure.
“There’s absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in the conference call.
Dan Shapiro, the senior National Security Council official who runs the Israel desk, said he “can certainly underscore the incredible richness and intensity and quality of the exchange between our governments in military channels, in political channels, in intelligence channels.”
Officials were brimming with superlatives. Details, however, were lacking, and in some areas there was evident disagreement.
The leaders agreed, for instance, on the need to go to direct talks with the Palestinians; the Palestinian Authority has resisted, pending a full settlement freeze.
Obama, however, set a deadline of sorts when he made clear that he wanted such talks to start before September, when Netanyahu’s self-imposed 10-month settlement freeze is set to lapse.
“My hope is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Obama said.
Israeli officials, speaking on and off the record, made it clear that they were not confident the Palestinians were ready for direct talks, and would not commit to a deadline.
The sides also spoke of confidence-building measures. Pressed for specifics, Obama cited the need for the Palestinians to further inhibit incitement, and called on Israel to “widen the scope” of Palestinian security responsibilities in the West Bank, given the advances that a U.S.-led team has had in training Palestinian security forces.
In the meetings before and after lunch, however, Netanyahu and his team suggested that the Israelis were not confident enough in the Palestinians to assume greater security control in areas outside their current purview of a handful of cities.
Most tellingly, Obama administration officials said the peace process and moving to direct talks was reason No. 1 for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.
Israeli officials placed it a distant third behind delivering assurances to Israel that the United States would not press Israel for nuclear transparency, and U.S. assistance in shepherding Israel past the crisis sparked by Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on an aid flotilla that aimed to breach Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip.
Still, the Israeli team emerged from the meetings reassured and even jovial. The nuclear issue was key.
“The United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine its security interests,” Obama said, referring to his administration’s efforts to get more countries to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Israeli officials had raised concerns after a U.S.-hosted conference in May concluded with an agreement to consider the issue of Israel. U.S. officials said later that the issue should only be considered subsequent to a comprehensive, permanent peace, which is Israel’s position.
The United States and Israel have a long-standing agreement to maintain ambiguity on Israel’s nuclear capacity. Israel is believed to maintain an arsenal of up to 200 nuclear warheads.
Netanyahu thanked Obama for “reaffirming the longstanding U.S. commitments to Israel on matters of vital strategic importance.”
Especially impressive to the Israelis, and to pro-Israel lobbyists that have fretted about the ostensible rift, was how Obama framed the announcement.
“We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us — against it — that Israel has unique security requirements,” Obama said. “It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security.”
The remark spoke to the “kishkes” factor — the concern among some pro-Israel groups about whether or not Obama has an intuitive, gut understanding of Israel’s security needs.
“This recognition by the United States of Israel’s security needs is a testament to the common understanding of the complexities of the Middle East situation,” B’nai B’rith International said in a statement.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded the remark.
“For over 60 years Israel has offered its hand in peace, demonstrating again and again its willingness to make real and heartrending sacrifices — altering borders, relinquishing territory, uprooting families and entire communities — in the pursuit of peace,” the organization noted.
Israeli officials said they were especially pleased with U.S. efforts to push back pressure for an international inquiry into the flotilla raid, which left nine Turks dead — including one Turkish-American citizen — and which has disrupted ties among Turkey, the United States and Israel.
Netanyahu also said he was pleased by the Iran sanctions Obama helped shepherd through the United Nations Security Council, as well as congressional sanctions that became law last week.
“I think the latest sanctions adopted by the U.N. create illegitimacy or create de-legitimization for Iran’s nuclear program, and that is important,” Netanyahu said. “I think the sanctions the president signed the other day actually have teeth. They bite.”