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Bibi-Obama Summit Aims To Refocus on Looming Challenges

The July 6 meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not only about putting the rocky relations of the recent past behind; it is also about looking toward how to navigate the potential potholes that lie just ahead for the two leaders.

Netanyahu is expected to receive a warm welcome, bringing to culmination the administration’s now famous charm offensive toward Israel. But he will be confronted, too, with critical questions about his intentions regarding Israel’s policy toward Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.

“Absent surprises from the outside, this visit is doomed to succeed,” predicted Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser during George W. Bush’s presidency. Hadley, currently a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, warned, however, that “crunch time will come in September” as Israel’s limited, self-imposed moratorium on expanding West Bank settlements ends.

What’s more, unless the Netanyahu government extends its original commitment, this moratorium will end around the same time that the Arab League is scheduled to decide the future of so-called “proximity” talks between Israel and the Palestinians. In these talks each side speaks to the other only through George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy.

The United Nations General Assembly will also convene in September, and is then expected to try to pass resolutions relating to the Middle East.

Israel wants direct negotiations. But the Palestinians and the broader Arab world are demanding that Israel first institute a comprehensive West Bank settlement freeze for the duration of such talks. In November, 2009 Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to a partial freeze that excluded any construction already started on the West Bank. Also excluded was all construction in East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its capital but the international community, including the United States, rejects.

The past two meetings between Obama and Netanyahu were plagued with unfavorable circumstances and differences of opinion. Last November, when Netanyahu was in Washington for the General Assembly of Jewish federations, a late-evening meeting was arranged from which both leaders emerged with no statement to the press and no agreement on a settlement freeze.

When Netanyahu returned to Washington in April to attend the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, again a last-minute meeting was arranged. Obama had been scheduled to be abroad, but when his plans changed, aides made an effort to fit in a one-on-one with Netanyahu.

Relations at the time were tense. The meeting came in the wake of the dispute that erupted when Israel announced plans for a new building development in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting to declare the resolution of earlier disputes about settlement expansions. The talks between Netanyahu and Obama this time were described by close aides as difficult and at times unpleasant. Obama, who pressured Netanyahu to come up with a list of steps Israel would take to solve the disagreement over building in East Jerusalem, was not pleased with Netanyahu’s response, and the leaders parted without reaching an agreement.

Subsequently, Israel instituted an undeclared, de facto moratorium on new construction in East Jerusalem, which the administration, in turn, quietly accepted.

Now, Netanyahu’s visit seems better timed. The disputes over settlements and Jerusalem have subsided. And the Obama administration, seeking a new way to reach out to Israelis and American Jews, has focused on its strong backing for Israel’s security needs, while highlighting the historic ties between the countries.

“I think the administration is beginning to overcome [earlier strains] by speaking the language of security,” Hadley said, citing stepped-up defense and strategic cooperation. This emphasis was demonstrated as recently as July 1, when Obama invited many pro-Israel activists to the White House to witness the signing of the new Iran sanctions law, which is considered to be the toughest ever passed.

“There is absolutely no rift between the U.S. and Israel. This is a relationship that is very strong and very important to the U.S.,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, in a July 2 conference call organized by the White House.

But differences regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process still exist, and while the tone has changed, the July 6 meeting will require both leaders to tackle these differences head-on.

For Obama, it is now time to begin discussing with Israel an extension of the settlement freeze beyond the September deadline. With clearly little to show thus far in the talks, and no breakthrough expected by fall, the administration fears that Israel’s termination of its settlement freeze would further distance the Palestinian partners.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is expected to stress in the meeting Israel’s demand to move into direct talks with the Palestinians instead of the proximity talks now going on, in which Mitchell shuttles between Ramallah and Jerusalem, carrying each side’s views to the other.

A deal does not seem unlikely: extension of the moratorium on new settlement expansion in return for a push from the United States for direct talks.

“If Obama really wants Netanyahu to extend the moratorium, he needs to promise direct talks,” said Michael Herzog, an Israeli brigadier general now retiring from the Israel Defense Forces after being involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for the past two decades. Herzog, now the Milton Fine International Fellow of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Netanyahu would not settle for less, since he needs to show some progress in order to get backing from his right-wing ruling coalition for an extended freeze.

Publicly, the administration has taken a cautious approach to this issue, stressing its support for direct talks, but refraining from setting a timetable or from putting forward a demand for continuation of the moratorium.

In a July 2 conference call with reporters, Dan Shapiro, White House senior director for the Near East and North Africa, said only that the moratorium was “quite significant” and that the administration saw it as an important step forward. He would not say whether Obama would press Netanyahu in their meeting to extend the freeze. “Our focus and the focus of this meeting will be making the transition into direct talks,” Shapiro said.

An Israeli diplomatic source said, however, that the United States has made clear to Israel on all levels that renewing construction in West Bank settlements would be seen as unhelpful and would make moving forward into direct talks more difficult.

But a deal on direct talks would also require Palestinian consent, which currently does not seem to be in the cards.

“It is hard to agree to that,” said Sabri Saidam, deputy secretary general of the Fatah revolutionary committee, who explained that the Palestinians had hoped the Obama administration would require a settlement freeze as a precondition to negotiations. “If we agree to direct talks now, it will create a credibility gap,” Saidam said during a June 29 briefing hosted by the New America Foundation.

Finally, there is now the added issue of Turkey and the May 31 flotilla affair, in which Israeli soldiers commandeered a Turkish ship in international waters as it headed toward Gaza with humanitarian supplies in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of that Palestinian territory. Eight Turks and one American were killed by the Israeli commandoes as they took over the ship under circumstances disputed by both sides.

The Obama-Netanyahu meeting was originally scheduled for early June, but was canceled when Netanyahu cut his trip to North America short in order to deal with the flotilla incident. This event also will still be on the table July 6, when the two leaders meet. The United States, according to officials, has been pleased with the Israeli government’s decision to ease the blockade on Gaza, a move that the administration had been strongly pushing.

Israel, in return, has praised the United States for blocking the creation of an international inquiry committee to examine the flotilla incident. But both sides want more: The administration still expects Netanyahu to follow through on Israel’s promised changes in Gaza policy and make sure they are fully implemented. The Israelis would like a promise that the United States will continue to stand up against demands for an international inquiry, if and when such calls are raised in international forums.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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