Every meeting between a prime minister of Israel and a president of the United States starts with the convoy of limousines that transports the visiting leader and his retinue to the White House entrance. It is simply a matter of crossing the road between Blair House (the presidential guest house) and the White House, passing through the iron gates, past the lawn and stopping in front of the door to the West Wing, where the president and his aides have their offices.
First the bodyguards emerge from the car, followed by the prime minister. The State Department protocol chief greets him, asks him to sign the White House guest book and stays with the Israeli retinue during a short wait in the Roosevelt Room. The protocol chief has the Israeli staff arrange itself in order of importance and enter the meeting with the president accordingly.
At the appointed hour, the doors to the corridor open and from there they enter the Oval Office, where the president and his senior aides - the vice president, the secretary of state and the head of national security - are standing and waiting to greet the guests. Everyone shakes hands with everyone, in order of importance. The official White House and Government Press Office photographers, who have been waiting with the president and his team, ready to immortalize the moment between the leaders, take photographs and videos.
The Oval Room is made up of two sections: At the one end, looking out over the Rose Garden and the White House lawn, stands the president's dark wooden desk. At the other end of the room is the seating area, where the visiting leaders are hosted. The order is standard.
The president and prime minister sit in striped armchairs and their aides sit on sofas. From the leaders' perspective, the Americans sit to the right and the guests to the left. The president and guest remain in the two armchairs throughout the meeting, even when speaking one on one. When the president wants to accord the guest special honor, he invites him for a private conversation in the domestic wing of the White House or in some other room in the building. When current Defense Minister Ehud Barak served as prime minister, then president Bill Clinton hosted him in the Map Room; former prime minister Ehud Olmert sat with president George W. Bush on the Truman Balcony. Most meetings, however, are held in the Oval Office.
The format of the meeting is standardized. It begins with reciprocal greetings and expressions of gratitude. It is customary for the president to control the agenda and move from topic to topic, presenting his position or addressing a question to the visiting prime minister. Aides participate in the discussion at the leaders' request, with their status relatively determined. If a continuation at working levels is required, the president assigns his relevant aide to be in contact with his Israeli counterpart. One participant from each side takes down minutes of the meeting (in actuality, others also write things down). The minutes are taken in the form of discussion points, not as a transcript; if a disagreement arises, each side "goes back to the notes."
It is customary to prepare the meetings in advance, to agree on the issues that will be discussed and the positions that will be presented. It is not acceptable to surprise the president by raising a new issue not included on the agenda. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon would come with a page of written notes, with the points he had prepared for discussion (as he did in media interviews). Bush would come empty-handed.
The joint statement the leaders read at the conclusion of the meeting is the most important element they must prepare. Generally this is prepared in advance, but sometimes the parties disagree until the very last minute and the statement must be completed during the meeting itself. In the preparatory deliberations, what will be brought up in the larger forum and what will be saved for more intimate discussion is determined, lest disagreements be revealed.
At the start of the working meeting the journalists are called in - first the photographers and cameramen, and then the reporters. The president reads his statement, which always includes a commitment to Israel's security and the hope for peace. The prime minister replies with expressions of gratitude, then presents his view with respect to peace and to threats to Israel. Following that there are questions, usually two from each side. The weight and importance of the meetings are evident in the content of the questions: When leaders are embroiled in other problems, the journalists bring them up and ask little about the Middle East conflict and its solutions. When the leaders are new on the job, as now, it is likely the questions will have more to do with the Palestinians and Iran.
If a joint luncheon is scheduled as well, it will be held after the working meeting, on the second floor of the White House. The luncheons are much more relaxed, and most of the reports about the joking and the sports talk and the conversations about family come out of this forum - though policy discussions also take place around the table, especially concerning the less pressing issues.
During his first meeting with an American president, the prime minister usually brings up the continued understanding regarding Israel's nuclear ambiguities. And at every meeting the Israeli leader will request clemency for Jonathan Pollard, the Jewish intelligence analyst for the American navy who was convicted and imprisoned for spying for Israel, in the knowledge that the president will refuse. Because of their sensitivity, these two issues are always discussed privately.
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