By Herb Keinon
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called radio reporters to Blair House late on the night of May 18 to correct what he thought was a gross misrepresentation by some media in Israel: that his talks with US President Barack Obama that day had ended in failure.
In his comments, repeated Tuesday morning after a meeting with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Netanyahu said there had been two important understandings reached with the Americans: one related to the need to keep Iran from achieving nuclear military capability, and the second having to do with the new US emphasis on the need for a regional component to the Palestinian-Israeli track.
Of course, the fact that Netanyahu felt the need to underline the “success” of the talks only led those who deemed them a failure to point out that he “doth protest too much.”
But when the dust settles, what will likely be remembered from Netanyahu’s maiden trip to the US in his second term as prime minister is that the talks led neither to a breakdown of relations with the US, nor a breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy.
In all, it was neither good nor bad, positive or negative. There were wide grey areas.
First the positive. Netanyahu was able to get the US president to sign off on the idea that the Arab states would have to be involved in the diplomatic process from the beginning, and not wait until the very end of the process to “reward” Israel with trappings of normalisation.
“The other Arab states have to be more supportive and be bolder in seeking potential normalisation with Israel,” Obama said, during his press conference with Netanyahu on May 18.
Netanyahu said in a briefing with reporters that he felt Obama was very determined on this matter, and that not only was Israel expected to “give,” but the Arab countries and the Palestinians would be asked to “give” as well.
In short, if Middle East diplomatic policy over the last several years has been characterised by a demand for Israel to offer “confidence-building measures” to the Palestinians, the new administration, at least in Netanyahu’s understanding, is going to demand that the Arab world take confidence-building measures toward Israel as a key component of a new diplomatic program that Obama is expected to unveil next month.
This call for the Arab world to make some gestures toward Israel is expected to be included in the address Obama plans to give in Cairo this month, an address that – while the Israeli-Arab conflict will be mentioned – is not expected to focus on Israel, but on US relations with the Arab world.
Netanyahu made clear that in his mind, the US call for the Arab countries to “give” something to Israel was a success for his demand for reciprocity – that in the diplomatic process Israel be asked not just to give, but to get something tangible as well.
Less successful, but not necessarily a disaster, was the discussion on Iran. From Netanyahu’s perspective, what was important about Obama’s comments on Iran was that for the first time, the President publicly indicated that the engagement would not be open-ended, but would have a deadline. The time limit will not be not the beginning of October – as was widely reported in the press but never confirmed by the US – but by “the end of the year.”
“We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there’s a good-faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn’t mean that any issue would be resolved by that point, but it does mean that we’ll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach,” Obama said.
Although it is not exactly clear what “the end of the year” means and what would happen at that time, this was a public recognition by Obama that he was committed to stopping the Iranians from achieving nuclear weapons capability.
These comments left Netanyahu with the feeling that, as he said, the President viewed preventing Iran from gaining nuclear military capability as an urgent matter, no less urgent than dealing with the Palestinian issue.
It is also worth remembering that two days before Obama met Netanyahu, Newsweek published an interview in which he specifically said, “I’ve been very clear that I don’t take any options off the table with respect to Iran.”
The biggest area of disagreement during the talks had to do, as was to be expected, with the Palestinian issue, and here the disagreements centred around the two “s” words: settlements and state.
Regarding the former, Obama made clear that “settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.”
Netanyahu made no commitments on the matter. Rather, he made clear that a discussion with the Obama Administration on the whole settlement issue – including which understandings had been reached with the Americans in the past – was about to commence. And until that discussion began, he was not willing to make any commitments publicly.
This also characterised his approach to the two-state idea. Despite Obama’s reiteration of his belief in a two-state solution, Netanyahu continued to refrain from mentioning the word “state.” The reason: He doesn’t know, nor has it been sufficiently explained, what “state” means in reference to the Palestinians.
The two-state vision was predicated on the idea that if a state were held out as the final goal, then the substance of the state would fall into place later.
Netanyahu is trying to reverse that, saying, “First let’s talk about what a Palestinian state entails – what sovereign right will it have, and what will it not have – and then it will be possible to commit to the idea.” First substance, and then terminology.
This is a basic substantive difference on this matter with the US, and one that – along with the settlements – will be discussed in the coming weeks.
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