For Netanyahu in Washington, Third Time Looks Like Being the Charm

Embarrassed by the awkwardness of the PM's last visit, the Obama administration is determined to present this one as a success.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Paris ahead of a trip to Washington, May 27

Third time's the charm, as they say.

On Tuesday morning, Prime-Minister Netanyahu will land in the U.S. from Canada for his third visit to the White House.

That same evening, he is due to leave Washington after another nearly spontaneous meeting with President Obama.

But this time, there are whispers behind the scenes from all sides, even before Netanyahu's plane touches down at Andrews air force base in Maryland, that “it will be a successful visit”.

Which means Netanyahu will finally get his photo-op, perhaps even a press conference with President Obama. Any prickly questions, if they are asked at all – on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, for example – are likely be met with one of a trusted inventory of stock answers that have so long been the basis of Israeli-American diplomacy.

“Sometimes even best friends disagree,” is a phrase likely to be heard around Capitol Hill next week; likewise, "this is an issue best left to final status negotiations".

Less probable is the announcement of a breakthrough in U.S.-mediated 'proximity talks' between Israel and the Palestinians, begun about two weeks ago - although there may well be minor declarations on some bilateral cooperation projects in science and industry.

What is new, however, is that unlike the last time Netanyahu was in Washington, the feeling is overwhelmingly positive. In the run up to the prime minister's trip, the White House held on Thursday held its first-ever reception honoring Jewish American Heritage on Thursday.

The same day, the House passed resolution 1391 to congratulate Israel on its accession to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The vote passed unanimously with 418 votes in favor – a statistic that beggars belief in today's partisan politics – making the atmosphere almost festive.

Conversations with Jewish leaders in the U.S. confirm the impression that attitudes have changed.

“Relations between the two countries have progressed since the visit of Vice President Biden to Israel [marred by an Israeli announcement of building plans in East Jerusalem]”, said William Daroff, Director of the Washington Office of The Jewish Federations of North America, who held marathon meetings with U.S. officials to lay ground for the visit.

“We are looking forward to building on the relationship, rather than getting stuck in a discussion that is no longer relevant”.

Kathy Manning, chair of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America, told Haaretz that the Obama administration had taken concrete steps that had reassured American Jews.

“The administration supported 'Iron dome' [an Israeli rockets defense system], and in terms of joint military exercises, it’s clear to us that the U.S. is very dedicated to this relationship," she said.

"Recent steps the administration has taken to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and confront the de-legitimization campaigns seem to be increasing. These are real steps that were taken."

She added: "The White House is very optimistic that there will be sanctions at the Security Council by June."

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator and now Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson center, a Washington think tank, said: “The change in the administration's behavior is more than anything else based on an understanding that if you want to get anywhere, you can’t go to war with Israeli prime minister.”

Miller said American officials were making a "calculated effort to be nice".

"It’s basically a virtue out of necessity," he said. "They have no chance to move forward on the peace process or gaining Israeli cooperation on Iran […] without forging a modus vivendi with the Israeli prime minister. It took them almost a year and a half to get there”.

So all seems set for a resurrection of Israeli-American ties.

Friday's closing declaration by the NPT review conference in New York, which singled out Israel for not signing the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and called for a 2012 conference on banning atomic weapons from the Middle East, could complicate things a bit.

But it almost certainly will not be enough to spoil Netanyahu’s trip, hastily timed between visits by the Lebanese prime minister and the Palestinian president. Indeed, the White House is so resolved to make things different this time, that nothing could spoil it.

Except, perhaps, another construction project in East Jerusalem.