Business as usual isn’t much to write home about, but sometimes it’s all one can hope for.
For Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an eventless meeting with President Barack Obama is apparently the best news he had to show for after a tumultuous year in which their never-warm relationship hit the skids.
“I didn’t feel any of that underlining tension you sometimes feel. It had a very productive direction, it wasn’t a debating symposium,” Netanyahu told reporters after the White House meeting. The premier acknowledged that tense meetings had taken place in the past, but insisted “this was not one of them.”
The cordial Oval Office meeting was book-ended by well-scripted opening statements, congratulatory welcoming remarks and perfunctory extra time added to the end. The positive atmosphere was presented to the media as evidence of just how well the two leaders got along together.
Fourteen months have passed since Netanyahu has last stepped foot in the White House. In that time, relations between Netanyahu and Obama have gone from bad to worse, as the U.S. moved forward with its nuclear Iranian deal and Netanyahu took his fight against it to the U.S. Congress and to the American public opinion.
The nuclear deal debate, once a wedge issue separating the two allies, has all but disappeared by the time Netanyahu arrived in Washington, mostly because Obama handily won the political battle to uphold the deal in Congress.
“It’s no secret that the Prime Minister and I have had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue,” said Obama at the top of the meeting. “But we don’t have a disagreement on the need to making sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.”
Netanyahu, who for the past decade never missed an opportunity to warn against the existential threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear program, did not mention the issue in a word during his opening remarks sitting next to Obama.
“Now that the deal has been approved, we’re looking forward,” Netanyahu said after the meeting, marking what he hopes will open a new page in his relationship with the Obama administration.
The Israeli leader also went out of his way to reject the claim that his government has given up on a two-state solution to its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.
“I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace,” Netanyahu said in the Oval Office. “We’ll never give up the hope for peace. And I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”
In the meeting, the Israeli prime minister promised that Israel will take steps on the ground to ease life of the Palestinians in the West Bank and to make sure the two-state solution remains viable. “We need to make a difference between terrorists and the general population,” he later said, “and these are the kind of things I intend to advance.”
Obama, for his part, also made sure to set a positive tone for the meeting. He signaled America’s willingness to increase aid to Israel as part of the next 10-year Memorandum of Understanding now being discussed, and appointed a team in the National Security Council to engage in talks with Israel. Obama, an Israeli source said, could have easily left this issue for his successor, since the current aid package only expires in 2017.
Israel now gets about $3 billion a year in U.S. assistance and Israel reportedly wants to bump that up to nearly $5 billion.
Netanyahu’s visit to Washington is as much about public diplomacy as it is about restoring relations with Obama. After spending two and half hours with Obama and leaving the White House unscathed, Netanyahu went on to reach out to the American public.
He started off with the conservative American Enterprise Institute Monday night. He planned to move on to addressing the Jewish audience Tuesday at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, and will cap off his charm campaign at the liberal Center for American Progress.
Contact Nathan Guttman on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman