On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the journalists who had accompanied him on his trip to the United States, for a press briefing on the 44th floor of The New York Palace hotel.
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Netanyahu, who had landed in New York after a two-hour visit to Washington, was beginning to understand that his 12th meeting with President Barack Obama, which was supposed to end with no headlines or surprises, had turned into yet another crisis between the two governments.
Once again, the reason for the crisis was construction in the settlements beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem. At the meeting in the White House, Obama brought up the settlements issue, but in a general way. But as soon as Netanyahu’s convoy left the White House, U.S. officials issued a variety of denunciations over Israel’s construction plans in East Jerusalem and occupying buildings in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. The denunciations astounded the prime minister and his men.
Netanyahu came to the press briefing with a white sheet of paper bearing two sentences printed in an especially large font. This was his message to Peace Now. Two hours before his meeting with Obama, Peace Now published a statement about the Jerusalem municipality’s advancing construction plans in East Jerusalem. Reading from the page, Netanyahu did not mention the organization by name, but accused it of lacking national responsibility and of deliberately trying to sabotage his meeting with Obama.
It is not clear what Netanyahu was complaining about. Peace Now was merely doing its job – challenging the government by means of a public discourse. Just as rightist groups pressured Netanyahu not to free Palestinian prisoners, or to free the spy Jonathan Pollard.
Netanyahu has only himself to blame. Even after five years as prime minister and countless similar crises with the American administration, he is still surprised every time by the ads published by planning commissions – at the worst possible time – about settlements. If he cannot call the relevant ministries or Jerusalem municipality to order, he shouldn’t gripe about Peace Now.
The latest quandary embarrassed Netanyahu. It destroyed his last shreds of credibility and gave a strange, almost ridiculous twist to his speech at the UN and his statement to Obama about integrating the moderate Arab states in the peace process. The new, strategic idea he had brought up now seemed like another one of his spins.
President Obama and his senior advisers go nuts every time they hear the word settlement. They see Israel’s international isolation deepening and the Palestinians advancing a unilateral move in the Security Council, while they have to deal every Monday and Thursday with crises produced by settlements.
“How do such things help me to help you?” Obama asked Netanyahu. Obama and his aides cannot understand how Netanyahu thinks he could advance relations with the moderate Arab states as long as construction in the settlements continues.
“Those moves not only poison the atmosphere with the Palestinians, but also with those Arab states Netanyahu said he wants to build relations with,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, shortly after Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu.
At his meeting with reporters, Netanyahu rejected Earnest’s criticism, but did not attack Obama harshly or personally. He used diplomatic clichés to downplay the fiasco. “The tones weren’t loud,” he said. “The conversation was good and open. I highly appreciate the president’s attentiveness.”
But it was clear Obama did not invite Netanyahu to stay for lunch, preferring instead to dine alone with Vice President Joe Biden. One can only guess who those two gossiped about.
Netanyahu denied criticism that his UN speech consisted mainly of general slogans and had no strategy or detailed peace plan.
“I want to translate the change in the region to a strategic and security cooperation, but the public debate makes that difficult,” he said.
Netanyahu says Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Emirates and other states are undergoing conceptual changes regarding Israel. But to get those states to make more significant steps and have open meetings with Israeli officials, rather than secret ones, Netanyahu will also have to pay – with Palestinian currency.
In his UN speech, Netanyahu did not mention the Palestinian state. The Israeli right hoped perhaps this was a sign that the prime minister was reneging on his Bar-Ilan “two states” speech from 2009. Netanyahu stressed this was not the case.
“I didn’t mention the issue because I was sure it was self-evident to all that I support it,” he said.
At the beginning of his meeting with Obama, Netanyahu made it clear in front of the cameras that he is still committed to the two-state solution. He said nobody in the White House had asked him to say this.
Netanyahu may be committed to the two-state vision, but he doesn’t really believe it can be implemented in the foreseeable future. The first reason is the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East. The second is the deep crisis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and in Netanyahu’s personal relations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It is difficult to see any progress between these two. Ad if all this weren’t enough, the Palestinians’ move in the UN exacerbates the problem.