Benjamin Weinthal at The Corner:
Today’s meeting between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama has the potential to repair the U.S. administration’s frosty posture toward Israel. In March, Obama publicly snubbed America’s only democratic ally in the Mideast by rejecting a joint Bibi-Obama press conference at the White House. Now Obama has an amazing opportunity to refill U.S.-Israeli relations with meaning and content.
What issues are front and center on Israel’s diplomatic agenda? Stopping Iran’s accelerated quest to obtain nuclear weapons; preserving Israel’s nuclear-ambiguity policy; securing U.S. pressure on Turkey so that it recoils from its threats to sever relations with Israel; and a peace process with the Palestinians that does not entail terror attacks and violent anti-Semitic propaganda.
The president’s decision to single out Israel for criticism at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, while not mentioning Iran’s illicit atomic program, was one of the lowlights of his administration so far. After nearly unanimous congressional votes in favor of new energy and financial sanctions on Iran, Obama signed the robust anti-Iran legislation last Thursday. One of the litmus tests of a restart in U.S.-Israel relations would be a hard-hitting enforcement of these sanctions.
Allison Hoffman at Tablet:
How often do you hear Mark Twain quoted at a high-level diplomatic summit? Not often enough, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to do his part to fix that: In his brief appearance today at the Oval Office with President Obama, Netanyahu announced that, pace Twain, rumors of the demise of the U.S.-Israel relationship are greatly exaggerated. In fact, they’re “flat wrong.” (Video here; transcript here.)
It was the first joint appearance by the two men in months, and a departure from their recent pattern of press blackouts and leaked reports of snubs. But with Israeli-Turkish relations maybe on the (slow) mend and both the Israelis and the Palestinians making refreshingly positive noises about the prospects for moving from proximity talks to direct peace negotiations, whatever topics Netanyahu and Obama needed to discuss, in “robust” fashion, in private—settlements, Iran, nuclear non-proliferation, the World Cup—were evidently overshadowed by the importance, for both, of giving off the impression of being copacetic.
So, in front of an audience limited to the American and Israeli press pool, they sat side by side, Bibi in a black-and-white striped tie and Obama in a red one, tag-teaming to give sunny responses. Is Netanyahu a partner for peace? “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace,” Obama assured. How quickly will things move now that we’re heading into the last few months of the settlement-construction freeze? “When I say the next few weeks, that’s what I mean. The president means that, too,” Netanyahu insisted.
For many hawkish and pro-Israel commentators, there are few events that are more infamous than Obama’s speech in Cairo last summer. Though he reaffirmed in that speech that the U.S.’s bond with Israel is “unbreakable,” many analysts have simply ignored this fact and pointed to Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world as proof of anti-Israel intent.
So it’s a bit surprising that at their joint press availability today, Netanyahu actually praised that Cairo speech, specifically citing it as proof that the President does not harbor ill will towards Israel. From the White House transcript, just out:
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU:
So I think there’s — the President said it best in his speech in Cairo. He said in front of the entire Islamic world, he said, the bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable. And I can affirm that to you today.
Hard to square that with the conservative interpretation of that speech, isn’t it?
Also key: Jake Tapper asks whether Netanhayu’s suggestion that the two men talked about moving the peace process forward in the coming weeks means that there could be peace talks on the agenda.
Laura Rozen at Politico:
“We’re nowhere near [former President Bill] Clinton and [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin,” veteran U.S. diplomat Aaron Miller commented on the warm body language of today’s meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, their fifth since taking office in early 2009. But still, Miller said, the concerted demonstration of good will today between two leaders who have had more strained encounters in the past “was impressive.”
“Obama and Bibi have set the parameters for their friendship pact for awhile,” Miller said. “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. 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.”
But the American Task Force for Palestine’s Hussein Ibish said he was encouraged by Obama’s comments during the press conference.
“The most significant thing said during the presser was support for state and institution building led by Abbas and [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad, and a clear indication from the president of the United States that the area of their control needs to be expanded in the West Bank,” Ibish said. “This is highly significant.”
Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:
It’s never a bad thing for the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister to be chummy in public. Nevertheless, it’s apparent that whenever Israel is the topic, Obama’s focus is on the “peace process” and not on the mullahs’ nuclear program. That is a central, but certainly not the only, failing in Obama’s Middle East policy.
Peter Beinart at The Daily Beast:
Don’t listen to what Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama said at their buddy, buddy press conference Tuesday afternoon. Listen to what they didn’t say. Netanyahu volunteered that “I very much appreciate the President’s statement that he is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” The only problem: Obama didn’t say that. He said Iran must “cease the kinds of provocative behavior that has made it a threat to its neighbors and the international community.” That’s a whole lot vaguer, and it points to the crux of the dispute between the two men. Netanyahu wants Obama to do whatever it takes to prevent an Iranian nuke, including going to war. Obama doesn’t want to box himself into that corner. But putting Obama in a box is exactly Netanyahu was trying to do.
As for Netanyahu, he didn’t utter the word “Gaza.” Obama praised Israel’s easing of the blockade on Gaza Strip, but signaled that it wasn’t enough. “We believe,” the president declared, “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.” All well and good, except that Netanyahu doesn’t want the people of Gaza to prosper economically. For public relations reasons, he’s willing to allow more goods into the Palestinian enclave. But he’s still banning virtually all exports, which means that most Gazans can’t afford to buy the goods Israel is now allowing in. The truth is that Israel is still punishing the people of Gaza for having elected Hamas; it’s just doing in a more subtle, less cruel way.
The second words Netanyahu didn’t mention: “Palestinian state.” Obama not only used the “S” word, he doubled it; referring to a “sovereign state” that the Palestinians “call their own.” Netanyahu, by contrast, talked about a “political settlement for peace” but not a state. In other words, he wouldn’t even go as far as he went last summer, under intense U.S. pressure, at Bar Ilan University.
Which raises a question: what kind of schmuck does Netanyahu think Obama is?