Seeking to put months of contentiousness behind them, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today in the Oval Office proclaimed the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship strong, with Netanyahu appearing to suggest that in the “coming weeks” he will take steps that could convince the Palestinians of the value of moving to direct peace talks.
Palestinian officials have stated they don’t want to move from the current proximity to direct talks without a settlement freeze, or at least a better understanding of the parameters of Israel’s view on territory and borders. The question is how far Netanyahu is willing to go in that direction; he said today that he and Obama “discussed concrete steps that could be done now — in the coming days, in the coming weeks — to move the peace process further along in a very robust way. This is what we focused our conversation on. And when I say ‘the next few weeks,’ that's what I mean.”
The Visuals: From “Cold Shoulder” to Bromance
Responding to media coverage of the rocky relationship between his and Mr. Obama’s administrations, Netanyahu paraphrased Mark Twain, saying that “the reports about the demise of the special U.S.-Israel…relationship aren't just premature, they're just flat wrong.”
Responding to an Israeli reporter who characterized President as having “distanced” himself from the Jewish state and having given “a cold shoulder” to Netanyahu, President Obama stated “the premise of your question was wrong, and I entirely disagree with it.”
Mr. Obama said that “if you look at every public statement that I've made over the last year and a half, it has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel; that our commitment to Israel's security has been unwavering. And, in fact, there aren't any concrete policies that you could point to that would contradict that.”
Having also been asked if he now trusts Netanyahu, the president said he has trusted Netanyahu “since I met him before I was elected president …I think that he is dealing with a very complex situation in a very tough neighborhood.”
In March, during Netanyahu’s last visit, the White House did not allow any photographs of Netanyahu and the president, Mr. Obama having been upset at what Obama administration officials deemed an “insult” days before when Vice President Biden’s arrival in Israel was greeted by the announcement of more Israeli settlements in disputed areas of Jerusalem, despite US pleas that such settlements hurt the peace process.
For this visit, not only were photographers allowed to record the event for posterity, they and reporters were allowed to take pictures of the two leaders engaging in a hearty and prolonged handshake in the Oval Office where both men took questions from the small “pool” of reporters.
On top of that, a choreographed “walking shot” of the two leaders strolling through the green grass (before the cameras) like co-stars in a bromance was arranged. The president walked Netanyahu to his awaiting limousine and shook his hand robustly, saying, “be well.” The president waited patiently as Netanyahu got into the limo and got settled. As the car started to pull away, President Obama waved one last goodbye. It was an uncharacteristically demonstrative send-off for the media to be allowed to film.
Obama: Confidence-Building Measures Need to Be Taken
Beyond the pageantry were words of some significance.
Asked if Israel should renew its partial settlement freeze, which is set to expire in September, Mr. Obama praised the Israeli government for having “shown restraint over the last several months” and dodged the question by saying he hopes direct peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians will begin “well before the moratorium has expired” and that “that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success; not every action by one party or the other is taken as a reason for not engaging in talks, so there ends up being more room created by more trust.”
“I want to just make sure that we sustain that over the next several weeks,” Mr. Obama said. He said he “believe[s] that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace” and that “he's willing to take risks for peace.”
Mr. Obama said “there are going to need to be a whole set of confidence-building measures, to make sure that people are serious and that we're sending a signal to the region that this isn't just more talk and more process without action.”
As examples of those measures, the president said the Palestinians should “not look for excuses for incitement; that they are not engaging in provocative language; that, at the international level, they are maintaining a constructive tone, as opposed to looking for opportunities to embarrass Israel.” He also praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as having “done some very significant things when it comes to the security front.”
The president said that for the Israelis’ part, “some of the steps that have already been taken in Gaza help to build confidence. And if we continue to make progress on that front, then Palestinians can see in very concrete terms what peace can bring that rhetoric and violence cannot bring.”
The president said that his administration, led by Special Envoy to the region George Mitchell, who was also present in the Oval Office, is “going to continually work with the prime minister and the entire Israeli government, as well as the Israeli people, so that we can achieve what I think has to be everybody's goal, which is: Is that people feel secure, they don't feel like a rocket's going to be landing on their head sometime, they don't feel as if there's a growing population that wants to direct violence against Israel.”
Bibi: US Sanctions Against Iran “Have Teeth; They Bite”
Mr. Obama said they discussed how “we have instituted, through the U.N. Security Council, the toughest sanctions ever directed at an Iranian government.”
Netanyahu said the sanctions bill recently passed by Congress and signed by the president “ actually have teeth. They bite.” He urged other countries to follow President Obama’s lead and “adopt much tougher sanctions against Iran, primarily those directed against its energy sector.”
Israel and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement
In addition, President Obama sought to assuage Netanyahu and other Israeli officials who had been upset that the U.S. acquiesced to the demands of other countries at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Conference by calling for Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement. “I reiterated to the prime minister that there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues,” Mr. Obama said.
“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. It's got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region.”
Israelis had hoped Mr. Obama would make public mention of a letter President Bush wrote to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 expressing an understanding that any two-state solution would reflect new borders and "new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers," and that "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
He did not.
Said Netanyahu, “there's a depth and richness of this relationship that is expressed every day. Our teams talk. We don't make it public. The only thing that's public is that you can have differences on occasion in the best of families and the closest of families. That comes out public and sometimes in a twisted way too.”