Obama and Bibi Meet in Washington

Jul 8, 2010

Update from AIJAC

July 8, 2010
Number 07/10 #02

As readers are probably aware, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held a much-anticipated meeting at the White House on Tuesday night with US President Barack Obama – the key details are reported here, while a transcript of their post-Summit press conference is here. This Update looks at the issues discussed and affected by the Summit, and the details of what was said.

First up is some excellent analysis of the outcome from Barry Rubin. He says the Summit was a success because the two sides have reached a basic modus vivendi – giving US support for Israel in exchange for modest Israeli steps that Washington hopes will help it be able to claim some degree of success on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Rubin criticises Washington’s approach to both peace-making with the Palestinian Authority and toward Gaza, but argues that given the reality of these policies, both sides are taking the least risky and least destructive route forward. For his complete take on the current US-Israel state of play post-Summit, CLICK HERE. In another recent post, cited in his post-Summit analysis below, Rubin also pointed out what Hamas leaders are saying and contrasts this with what President Obama and other Western leaders are saying about Gaza. In yet another, he talks about Russia’s growing policy of “engagement” with Hamas.

Next up is noted Israeli academic Eytan Gilboa, who attempts to explain what he sees as a significant change in the approach of the Obama Administration toward Netanyahu in this meeting compared to previous meetings. He points out how the previous strategy failed to promote US goals – particularly progress toward peace – and that a re-assessment was obviously necessary, even though there remain significant gaps in world view and approach between Washington and Jerusalem. He notes messages from the President to the Palestinians about renewing direct talks, but says it remains to be seen what the effects of the Summit’s changed atmospherics will be on peace prospects, and on the political and policy fortunes of both Netanyahu and Obama. For the rest of his discussion, CLICK HERE. Some further Israeli columnists’ views of the Summit, from differing perspectives, are here and here.

Finally, Laura Rozens of the important Washington online publication Politico, solicits analysis of the Summit’s outcome from a number of experts. Among them are David Makovksy of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller. All note, as Rubin does, that working together is in the interests of both parties, that both sides share a desire to see direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, and that thus the improved atmospherics seem likely to continue. For the full piece, CLICK HERE. The Washington Institute also featured some interesting pre-Summit analysis of the state of US-Israel relations from former US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and Israeli security expert Michael Herzog. Other interesting pre-Summit pieces come from BICOM, veteran Australian Jewish leader Isi Leibler, and American policy analyst Dan Senor.

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Obama Meets Netanyahu: No Love Fest But As Good As It’s Gonna Get

By Barry Rubin*

GLORIA, July 6, 2010

Why was the meeting this time between President Barack H. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a success? The answer is simple though not all the reasons are publicly known. So I’ll tell you about them.

The president couldn’t have been more effusive. They had an “excellent” discussion, Netanyahu’s sttement was “wonderful” and the U.S.-Israel relationship is “extraordinary.”  Hard to believe this is the Obama we’ve seen before.

Obama wants to improve relations with Israel for several reasons. Obviously, he doesn’t want to be bashing Israel in the period leading up to the November elections is an important incentive. Polls show that for Americans his administration’s relative hostility toward Israel is its least popular policy. But there is more to this trend than just that point.

What Obama wants is to be able to claim a diplomatic success in advancing the Israel-Palestinian “peace process,” perhaps the only one he can so spin. Keeping indirect talks going and even better, moving them up to direct talks is his goal. So he wants Netanyahu’s cooperation for that.

The same point holds regarding the Gaza Strip, where Obama wants to claim he has defused a crisis he has called “unsustainable.”

(I hate that word. When you hear something is “unsustainable” immediately become suspicious. This has everything to do with perceptions and little to do with realities where quite a lot of things are quite sustainable. Pretty much every single Middle East problem has been sustained for decades.)

And he also wants to keep the Israel-Arab front calm while he deals with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, seeking above all to avoid crises and confrontations and to keep up his (bogus) bargain of trading flattery for popularity.

So here’s the deal. Give Israel some U.S. support in exchange for modest steps that the administration hopes accomplishes its goals. Israel will give some things that don’t appreciably hurt its interests in order to maintain good relations with the United States.

First, Israel has revised the list of goods it permits to go into the Gaza Strip. The details were all agreed beforehand with the United States. The Obama Administration will support Israel over Gaza generally, including endorsing its independent investigation of the flotilla issue.

As the Israeli government explained it, the new list “is limited to weapons, war materiel, and dual-use items.” Such military items include–aside from the obvious–a long list of chemicals, fertilizers, knives, optical equipment, light control equipment, missile-related computer technologies, and so on.

Israel is defining dual-use items by an international agreement, the “Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies,” and thus this should be acceptable to Western governments.

Construction material will be carefully monitored and allowed in only for specified projects. Israel will keep out dual-use goods including construction materials (concrete and pipes, for example) that can be used by Hamas to build bunkers and rockets.

At present, there are 45 such projects approved by Israel. The Palestinian Authority must also approve each one (thus, in theory, the buildings created would strengthen its popularity and influence though this is probably wishful thinking). These include school and medical buildings, water and sewage systems, and housing. If Israel determines through its multiple intelligence-collecting sources, that the material is being misused to benefit Hamas or its military strength, the supplies would be stopped.

The United States will proclaim that the alleged humanitarian crisis is over and the people of Gaza are doing just fine, ignoring their being subject to a terribly repressive dictatorship. Hamas will denounce the concessions as insufficient and continue efforts to smuggle in weapons, consolidate its rule, and turn Gaza’s little children into terrorists. This is the contemporary Western idea of a diplomatic success.

(Here’s a riddle for you. What’s the difference between the Islamist and Western views of peace? The Islamists never lose a war because no matter how badly they are defeated they deem it a victory to survive and continue the battle. The West never loses a war because it defines the end of any war as a victory no matter what the result.)

But Israel’s policy decision makes sense. As I’ve pointed out before, once Israel concluded that there will be no Western commitment for overthrowing the Hamas regime it might as well go to a containment strategy. This Western policy is terrible but Israel is merely recognizing the real situation and making the best of it.

What a terrible strategy, though. Obama said:

“And we believe that there is a way to make sure that the people of Gaza are able to prosper economically, while Israel is able to maintain its legitimate security needs in not allowing missiles and weapons to get to Hamas.”

Really? How the hell are you going to do that? Read the latest speech by Hamas’s leader and wonder what possible conception of Hamas Obama might have. Doesn’t he realize that if Gaza prospers Hamas is strongly entrenched in power and has plenty of assets to pursue war with Israel, which then destroys any prosperity.

Oh, I’m just being coy. I know what Obama thinks: The people prosper, the middle class gets stronger, the masses demand moderation and Hamas’s downfall. This is a view of revolutionary Islamism and the workings of dictatorships that boggles the mind. It is the mindless idea that prosperity brings peace and moderation, and that a regime ready to torture, murder, and indoctrinate people will be easily removed.

There is the possibility of the U.S. government and other Western countries subverting Israel’s position by engaging Hamas (as Russia did lately) but that line can probably be held for the next few years at least. Various Western media and activist groups can try to keep up the notion that the Gaza Strip is a hell on earth (because of Israel) and people are starving. There will be no truth to this, of course, but there was no truth to it before and that didn’t stop them. But their task will be harder.

Obama praised Netanyahu just as much on the “peace process.” The president said: “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace.” Remember that quote when Obama turns on Netanyahu again after the November elections. As for risks, we’ve had enough of those, thank you very much.

But Netanyahu’s goal was to make Obama happy with the minimum of risk. Israel will extend its building freeze on the West Bank and east Jerusalem in exchange for an Obama Administration commitment to endorse its predecessor’s acceptance of Israel retaining “settlement blocs” as part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

In other words, if a diplomatic settlement were ever to be reached then borders would be shifted to allow Israel to annex some relatively small areas with a large number of settlers. This would not only improve Israel’s security situation in the event of a peace agreement (don’t hold your breath for that to happen) but also greatly increase support for a flexible policy within Israel.  If there isn’t going to be a peace treaty (due to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas) Israel isn’t giving up anything.

Continuing to freeze construction on settlements will give Netanyahu a domestic problem but he can hold his coalition together, if necessary by adjusting it. Parties are constrained from walking out of the government because if elections were to be held Netanyahu would win in a landslide partly at their expense.

Another thing Netanyahu wants is for Obama to escalate pressure on Iran regarding that country’s nuclear weapons’ drive. The new sanctions, thanks to Congress, are going to hurt Iran and undermine support for the regime there. Not enough, of course, to stop the program. Still, when Iran does get nuclear weapons, Israel will need the United States to take a strong stand in containing Tehran.

Does Israel’s government trust Obama? Of course not. Israel’s government and Israelis in general are under no illusions about Obama’s view of their country, his willingness to battle revolutionary Islamists, or his general reliability and toughness.

For example, last October the Obama Administration, through the State Department, did endorse the “settlement bloc” commitment, but then appeared to have forgotten about it. The U.S. government also broke its promises over the settlement freeze (accepting Jerusalem’s exclusion and then howling about it a few months later) and regarding the nonproliferation conference (pledging to oppose any reference to Israel’s nuclear weapons and then going back on that point).

There is also clarity about the possibility of Obama turning to a much tougher stance on Israel after the congressional elections are over. Yet with a plummeting popularity at home and lots of domestic problems, perhaps Obama will have more on his mind than playing Middle East peacemaker.

The Palestinian Authority is so uneager for a peace agreement that anything said by Israel on the subject is most unlikely ever to be implemented. And it seems that the Obama Administration has at least some sense that it isn’t going to get an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement so it doesn’t want to look foolish in making this a high priority and then failing.

Thus, Israel’s strategy is as follows: try very hard to get along with the administration, seek to keep it happy, and avoid confrontation without making any major irreversible concessions or taking serious risks. Have no illusions, but keep the U.S. government focused on Iran as much as possible.

The next Congress will be more likely to constrain the president and who knows what will happen in future. A building freeze might be ended on strong grounds the next time. It is quite possible that Iran, Syria, and other radical forces will so assault the United States and trample on its interests that Obama will be forced to alter course. And there’s always the 2012 presidential election.

This, then, is the best policy for Israel to follow in comparison to more unattractive options. And for the foreseeable future, Obama will play along. It isn’t neat but it is real world international politics.

*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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Obama’s new approach

US president realizes his tough approach to Israel was counterproductive

Eytan Gilboa

Ynet.com 07.07.10,

Even if the Obama and Netanyahu photos and statements following their meeting do not fully reflect what was said in the Oval Office, they convey important messages for our region and for US citizens, who in four months will cast their ballots in the Congress elections.
Obama and Netanyahu had to walk a very fine line. Both of them are pressed between foreign affairs and defense strategies on the one hand, and domestic political elements on the other. Obama is pressed between his approach to Israel and resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and his deteriorating status among voters in general, and among Israel’s friends in particular. Netanyahu is pressed between Obama’s demands and the more rightist components of his coalition.
The meeting was meant to hold off the pressure and improve both Obama’s and Netanyahu’s status at home and abroad; it appears these objectives were met.
In all the previous meetings between the two, the US president criticized the prime minister, reprimanded him, pressed him, and in some cases even humiliated him. The US Administration also made an effort to highlight the disagreements between the sides and the president’s dissatisfaction with the prime minister and his policy.
Yet in the latest meeting, the tables were turned. Obama lauded Netanyahu and his policy, treated him with respect, and stressed the areas of agreement with him. Both leaders characterized their meeting as excellent and lavished gratitude and praise at each other.
The change in Obama’s attitude stems from a combination of diplomatic and political elements. The strategy of exerting brutal pressure on the prime minister and creating a crisis in US-Israel relations did not produce the hoped-for results, did not improve America’s status in the Arab and Muslim world, did not promote talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and did not prompt strategic shifts in Netanyahu’s policy.
The opposite was true: America’s status deteriorated, among other things because its Arab allies wondered whether this is the kind of attitude accorded to (as Obama himself characterized it) America’s most important Mideastern ally. Meanwhile, the Palestinians reached the conclusion that they need not do a thing – the US will do the job for them and elicit all the concessions they demanded from Israel.
On the unilateral front, Obama reached the conclusion that it’s better to influence Netanyahu via embraces and encouragement rather than through slaps to the face and pressure. On the regional front, the message that emerged from the meeting is meant to change the interpretation given to the tensions in US-Israel relations, which undermined important regional and global US interests.
The message stopped the deterioration in US-Israeli ties and stressed the close military and diplomatic ties between the sides. Obama is attempting to restore the special relationship between the two states and even gave expression to this by referring to Israel’s nuclear program. He said that because of Israel’s size, past, and the existential threats it faces, the Jewish State is a unique case.
Message to Palestinians, Americans

The message to the Palestinians is that they must stop looking for excuses and enter direct negotiations with Israel. Obama hinted that they should not count on an American peace plan that will be forced upon Israel in case the two sides to the conflict fail to secure an agreement themselves. The message to the region is that the US supports Israel, and anyone who thought he can provoke and harm Israel without paying any price or facing any response better think again.
In four months, elections will be held for all Congress seats and one third of Senate seats. Obama’s status among voters has deteriorated and he needs every vote. His attitude to the prime minister and to Israel provoked criticism among Israel’s friend in the US, including Democratic Party members.
An immense majority of Senators and Congress members of both parties sent the president critical letters on several occasions and demand that he change his attitude to Israel. The frequency of these inquiries was unprecedented. Hence, the meeting with Netanyahu was also meant to reassure Israel’s friends among the voters and stress the change in the Administration’s attitude to Israel.
The dispute with the US also undermined Netanyahu’s status. The strategic ties with the Americans are vital to Israel, and a prime minister who fails to safeguard them appears to undermine our national security, especially at a time when Israel’s global status deteriorates and it faces grave threats on the part of states like Iran and its allies.
The outcome of the meeting with Obama enables Netanyahu to claim that he is restoring the ties with the US without paying a high price. By doing so he boosts his status within the public and among his coalition partners.
The summit meeting did not eliminate the deep gaps that still exist between Obama and Netanyahu in respect to their worldview, ideology, and policy. The manner in which the summit was presented serves first and foremost their shared short-term interests.
Obama wishes to avert a collapse of talks between Israel and the Palestinians and even to advance them to a direct negotiations format. He wishes to boost his status ahead of the November elections among Israel supporters, and hopes and that direct talks will prompt the continuation, in practice, of the construction freeze in the territories.
Netanyahu is interested in direct talks, in restoring the ties with America, and in boosting his coalition. Only towards the end of the year we’ll be able to determine whether the meeting indeed reflected a new chapter of cooperation in US-Israel relations, or merely a lull between periods of disagreement, tensions, and crises.
Professor Eytan Gilboa is an expert on US affairs and a Political Science and Communication lecturer at Bar-Ilan University

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Obama-Bibi reset

Laura Rozen

Politico, July 06, 2010

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned on the charm at a White House meeting Tuesday, as the American and Israeli leaders sought to use body language and warm words to demonstrate that there was no rift in the American-Israeli relationship.

“Well, I just completed an excellent one-on-one discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I want to welcome him back to the White House,” Obama said. “As Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated in his speech, the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.”

“Obviously there’s still tensions and issues there that have to be resolved,” Obama conceded. “But our two countries are working cooperatively together to deal with these issues.”

“The President and I had an extensive, excellent discussion in which we discussed a broad range of issues,” Netanyahu echoed. “We understand fully that we will work together in the coming months and years to protect our common interests, our countries, our peoples, against new threats. And at the same time, we want to explore the possibility of peace.”

The White House’s upbeat cast to this fifth meeting between Obama and Netanyahu since the two took office is aimed in part at domestic audiences. Some congressional Democrats have told the White House they fear that they will suffer with key donors and in the November midterms from the perception that Obama has been too tough on the Israeli leader. But while Obama faces pressure from some in his party to essentially delay until after the midterms any bold actions or pressures on the Middle East peace front, he is also facing larger geopolitical forces and deadlines that, if not managed, could unravel the fragile peace process his administration is starting to get off the ground.

“Obama and Bibi have set the parameters for their friendship pact for a while,” veteran U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told POLITICO. “There was no reason for a fight and every reason to do the proverbial reset.”

“Still, lurking below the surface is an expectations gap that will test each leader,” Miller continued. “In the end, everyone will want to know how do we get to an agreement, given the gaps, particularly the Palestinians who have got to be wondering what the game really is.”

“It seems the president and his team have internalized that their tactics of the first 18 months were not getting them closer to achieving their goal — of real progress in resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict,” Nathan Diament the Orthodox Union told POLITICO. “They’ve realized they cannot make progress if Israel feels the U.S. is not on its side.

“Things will surely be smoothed over today,” Diament said. “The test comes in September — when the settlement freeze is to expire, the Arab League deadline and the U.N. [General Assembly] all loom.”

Both Obama and Netanyahu “have the same objective: to upgrade [U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian proximity] talks to direct talks,” said David Makovsky, co-author with the White House Iran and Near East adviser Dennis Ross of the book Myths, Illusions and Peace. “I think that there is a desire for the U.S. to more put its arm around Israel than to lean on it.”

“But I think that it’s fair to assume probably that behind the scenes [the Obama White House is] still trying to find a way to upgrade these talks in a way that works both for Israel and the Palestinians,” Makovsky, senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, continued. “And for Israel, the issue is sensitive, that they have to ‘pay’ for these talks through an extension of the [West Bank settlement] moratorium, because they believe it is in the Palestinian interests to have negotiations to get a Palestinian state.”

Following his White House meetings Tuesday, Netanyahu was due to be hosted at Blair House by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday evening, and was scheduled to hold meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu heads to New York, where he will speak at Yeshiva University at an event hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. On Thursday, he will speak at the Council on Foreign Relations, before returning to Israel.

Netanyahu also invited Obama to visit Israel at today’s meeting.

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