A talk given by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro at the Brookings Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington D.C. last weekend did not gain sufficient attention in Israel. Most of the Israeli newspapers focused on his argument that more American aid, which would fund the manufacture of missile defense systems, would help Israel make "tough" decisions in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. (In other words – the financial assistance and defense systems would minimize the risk posed by rocket attacks thus facilitating future Israeli territorial withdrawals.)
However, the broader context of Shapiro's speech is far more interesting. The assistant Secretary of State presented a "shopping list" of military aid the U.S. provides Israel in order to back his argument that the Obama administration is still committed to Israel and that the aid it provides Israel is greater than anything we've gotten in the past, ensuring Israel's superiority over its rivals in the region. Naturally, Shapiro didn't address the other side of the equation: What will Israel give U.S. President Barack Obama in return?
This, of course, is the hidden component behind Obama's recent meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. Mountains of superlatives were spoken, both in Jerusalem and Washington, about the marked improvement in the relations between the two sides in the wake of the moving encounter. What became clear was that Obama had decided to change tactics, not to say his entire strategy. After the cold and rough attitude he displayed toward the prime minister during their previous meeting, and the widely reported crisis surrounding Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel in March, the American president did a complete 180 in his public attitude toward Netanyahu. In the place of a chill came a hug.
Different analysts have offered varying explanations for the change in Obama's approach. It is possible that the American cabinet decided that the original approach had failed and that a warmer approach would prompt Netanyahu to advance peace talks. It is also possible that fear of an adverse effect of tense relations with Israel on Jewish Democratic Party donors, especially ahead of congressional elections, played a role.
What remains unclear is what Netanyahu promised Obama in exchange for the hug he received. Did he, as he is quoted in several closed circles, say that he would be willing to go further toward peace than his predecessors and that he is the only Israeli leader who would be able to do so? Alternately, was a deal formulated under which the U.S. would play ball on Iran (tougher sanctions and policy) while Israel will make concessions in favor of the Palestinians? Didn't Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing marker in Netanyahu's government, declare just two days ago that the temporary settlement freeze would not be renewed and that Israel would resume building in September?
What is clear, however, is that Obama still seems determined, despite all the obstacles, to pull the Israeli-Palestinian process out of its coma. Shapiro's remarks provided a general idea of the price the U.S. is willing to pay. But what did Netanyahu promise in return? The answers may only begin to emerge in September, when the 10-month settlement freeze expires.
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