Foreign Affairs

Obama Meets Netanyahu at White House

The red carpet treatment usually reserved for world leaders visiting Washington was noticeably absent this week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped by the White House to meet with President Barack Obama.

No fire-side news briefing or official photographers accompanied the 90-minute meeting. More importantly, no tangible evidence emerged from the meeting that suggested the two men are any any closer to agreeing on the conditions necessary to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

All the White House offered was a bland press release that said: "The President and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed a number of issues in the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship. The President reaffirmed our strong commitment to Israel’s security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues. The President and Prime Minister also discussed Iran and how to move forward on Middle East peace."

Jonathan Schanzer, of the Jewish Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, attributes the lackluster meeting and the shaky state of US-Israel relations to the diplomat failures of the Obama administration — the biggest of which were his calls for Israel to institute a complete "freeze" on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

(The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, say they will not negotiate unless Israel commits to a full settlement freeze.)

Schanzer told HUMAN EVENTS that Obama’s public call for the construction freeze has haunted peace talks. For years, the Israeli government operated under the impression that it had a unofficial agreement with the United States that there would be any no new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but that construction could occur in the already built up areas. Schanzer said that help explains why Obama’s new approach "surprised" the Israelis and has been met by immovable resistance from Netanyahu’s cabinet — a stance that has frustrated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas so much so that he recently threatened to step down.
By the time the administration signaled in September that it was willing to begin talks before Israel brings an end to its construction of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem — a sentiment White House Chief of Staff White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel repeated in a speech Tuesday before members of the American Jewish Community in Washington — the damage had already been done.

"People thought things would smooth over after that, but I would argue they have not yet found their equilibrium," he said.

That same month, the administration was also busy trying to put a lid on all the anger boiling up over a report from Judge Richard Goldstone, which accuses both Israeli and Palestinian troops of war crimes during the conflict in Gaza last winter.

Schanzer says the administration reassured Israeli leaders that the controversial report — which also concluded the Israeli military targeted Palestinian civilians during the war — would "die a quite death" at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva "before reaching the [United Nations] General Assembly," Schanzer said. Jerusalem, in turn, appeared ready to work work with the administration, he said.

The White House then pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to back off the Goldstone report. He did so reluctantly in October, saying the decision to defer the Human Rights Council’s vote on the report was based on a general consensus of council members.
But, following weeks of criticism from Palestinians angry over the decision and the 1,400 people who had died, Abbas reversed course. He ordered his envoy to the United Nations to resubmit the 575-page report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and request a special session to approve the report.

By doing do, he effectively thumbed his nose at Obama’s request.

On October 16, the Human Rights Council endorse the report, a vote view by some as an attempt to push both sides to conduct their own credible investigations into the alleged war-crimes.

"This essentially eroded the relationship further," Schanzer said.

The outcome made Obama look weak. Some questioned his inability to hold his word American allies on the Human Rights Council from supporting the report. Others said his failure to secure a settlement freeze from Israel weakened him in the eyes of the Palestinian delegation.

"The White House has failed to deliver to deliver on both sides," Schanzer said. And that could undermine what both sides believe the president can offer going forward, he said.                                    

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