Professional cynics should have no doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama had an “excellent” meeting at the White House on Tuesday. After all, Obama used the adjective three times, seemingly compensating for the previous episode of the unfolding Israel-U.S. soap opera, in which Obama snubbed the prime minister.
Other superlatives describing the two countries’ relationship were “extraordinary," “unbreakable," “strategic," “closer and closer," as well as the declaration that “our relationship is continuing to improve."
From Netanyahu’s point of view, there was clearly a serious improvement.
Obama commended him on “real progress” in his handling of the crisis in Gaza, which “has moved more quickly and more effectively than many people anticipated."
On Iran, Netanyahu got his assurance that the Obama administration - which imposed exceedingly tough sanctions last week signed in addition to those at the UN Security Council - is seriously committed to dealing with Tehran’s nuclear program.
The real treat was Obama’s announcement that “there is no change in U.S. policy” when it comes to Israel’s nuclear program.
“We strongly believe that given its size, history, region and the threats that are leveled against it, that Israel has unique security requirements," Obama said. "It's got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that's why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel's security. And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests."
And finally, there was the subject of proximity talks with the Palestinians, which administration officials made every effort to portray as effective, and that Israel and the Palestinians have been “narrowing the gaps."
“I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace," said Obama. “I think he's willing to take risks for peace…. Now more than ever, I think is the time for us to seize on that vision. And I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared to do so. And I believe that the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such direct talks. And I commend the prime minister for that."
The need for “confidence-building measures” was mentioned – but there was pretty much no talk of extending the moratorium on Israel's settlement construction in the West Bank, which expires in September.
“I think the Israeli government, working through layers of various governmental entities and jurisdictions have shown restraint over the last several months that I think has been conducive to the prospects of us getting into direct talks," said Obama.
“And my hope is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment and success," Obama continued. "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. And so, you know, I want to just make sure that we sustain that over the next several weeks."
Obama also dismissed the claim he “snubbed” Netanyahu in their prior meeting. “The premise to your question was wrong, and I entirely disagree with it," he told the reporter who asked about the cool welcome Netanyahu had received. "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. In fact, there aren't any concrete policies that you could point to that would contradict that.
And in terms of my relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know the press, both in Israel and Stateside, enjoys seeing if there's news there. But the fact of the matter is that I've trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president, and have said so both publicly and privately. I think that he is dealing with a very complex situation in a very tough neighborhood."
And an invitation was extended –
“You know, I've been coming here a lot. It's about time you –," said Netanyahu, suggesting Obama visit Israel.
“I'm ready," answered Obama.
“ - and the first lady came to Israel," finished Netanyahu.
“We look forward to it," replied Obama.
“Thank you very much," said Obama.
And then there was lunch for the Israeli delegation. The guest list included, in addition to the American Diplomat in Chief, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice; National Security Adviser General James Jones; Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, senior director for the central region Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, senior director for Middle East and North Africa and the U.S. Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham.
So the compensation indeed exceeded expectations and must have brought real catharsis to the audience that followed the drama of this uneasy relationship – especially the Israeli public and the American Jewish community.
Some analysts – for example, Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy - claim (quite rightfully) that it was mainly a photo-op and therefore, a waste of the time.
True, the prospects of peace are still shaky and the future of the Iranian nuclear program still murky. But for some in the Israeli public, skeptical as they might be, these handshakes and a bouquet of flowers from the First Lady, and smiles and pictures and accommodation at the Blaire House instead of some distant hotel, and photographers taking pictures of Netanyahu's departure instead of sneaking him out of the White House in the dark, it might well be a rare moment of consolation.
After all, in this “tough neighborhood," what can make us forget our troubles other than a good soap opera?
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