With Aid Deal Signed, Netanyahu and Obama in Talks Over Holding Final Meeting This Week

U.S., Israeli leaders may meet on sideline of UN General Assembly this Wednesday, which would be their first meeting in 10 months.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations, New York, U.S., September 21, 2011.
Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

Following last Wednesday’s signing of the military aid package, the White House and Prime Minister’s Office are looking for a way to coordinate a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the United States this week.

Senior Israeli and U.S. officials involved in these efforts believe the meeting will indeed take place. Scheduling constraints on both leaders will probably set the meeting for New York on Wednesday, alongside the UN General Assembly meeting.

Netanyahu leaves Israel at midday Tuesday. He’ll be in New York for five days and return to Israel by next Monday morning. He will address the General Assembly on Thursday evening, Israel time, shortly before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech.

The Obama-Netanyahu meeting will be the last between the two leaders before Obama leaves the White House next January. The meeting, which will apparently be shorter than earlier ones, will be the first between the two men since they met at the White House in November 2015. In the last 10 months, the two leaders have not met or spoken by phone.

Since their first meeting in May 2009, almost every meeting between the two leaders has been fraught with tension, suspicion and negative media headlines. In this respect, however, the upcoming meeting may be an exception.

A week after the signing of the military aid package agreement, the two leaders will have the common goal of demonstrating warmth and friendship in front of the cameras. Both leaders will wish to strengthen the positive aspects of their joint legacy, expressed by an increase in U.S. military aid to Israel to its highest-ever level.

Both leaders will also want to use the meeting in order to refute criticism of the deal by their political rivals. Netanyahu will wish to counter claims made by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, while Obama will want to address claims made by Republicans, headed by Sen. Lindsey Graham.

The White House has been perplexed by internal discussions in Israel about the deal and the political confrontation it has engendered. A joke doing the rounds among senior U.S. administration officials since Wednesday is that the complaints against Netanyahu, according to which he could have obtained a more generous deal, is the Israeli way of saying ‘thank you’ to the United States for giving it $38 billion of U.S. taxpayers’ money, which will be transferred to the Israel Defense Forces over the next 10 years.

A senior U.S. official who was intimately involved in the negotiations with Israel over the aid package told Haaretz a few hours before the signing ceremony that the question of whether better relations between Netanyahu and Obama in recent years could have yielded a better deal was mere speculation.

He noted that the extent of aid discussed during the talks was based on thorough and professional analysis of Israel’s defense needs and the threats it faces, not on the nature of relations between Obama and Netanyahu.

Negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program between Iran and the six world powers, which resumed in the fall of 2013 and lasted almost two years, up to the signing of the Vienna agreement in July 2015, led to a dramatic confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu. As the dispute deepened, the talks around military aid slowed, until they were completely suspended in the fall of 2014. At the start of 2015, Netanyahu decided to formally stop the talks and in April of that year — after the framework agreement between Iran and the powers was reached in Lausanne, Switzerland — he informed Obama of that decision in a phone conversation between them.

A senior U.S. official who is familiar with the content of discussions between the two leaders noted that, in that conversation, Obama offered to embark on talks with Netanyahu not only on military aid, but on more general understandings between the two countries relating to the day after the deal with Iran was signed. This included intelligence sharing, waging a joint campaign against terrorism and subversion carried out by Iran and Hezbollah, as well as addressing other regional issues such as Syria.

The U.S. official says that Netanyahu rejected this offer and preferred to focus on fighting the Iranian deal that was then taking shape. This confirms some of the claims made by Barak against Netanyahu.

In November 2015, two months after his failure to block the nuclear accord’s ratification by the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu finally agreed to hold the dialogue Obama had offered him seven months earlier.

Netanyahu’s critics, headed by Barak, have argued in recent days that if Netanyahu had behaved differently toward Obama and not frozen talks about the aid package until after his campaign against the nuclear deal with Iran was over, Israel could have obtained a better deal. Barak claimed that Netanyahu’s campaign and his speech before Congress had cost Israel $7 billion and that, instead of $38 billion, Israel could have received $45 billion.

The message emerging from the White House in recent days is almost identical to that emanating from the Prime Minister’s Office. Despite some criticism of Netanyahu, the Obama administration is very careful not to argue that if Netanyahu had behaved differently, the aid package would have been bigger.

“Obama didn’t say or even hint to Netanyahu that he will get more aid if he comes to the talks now [while the Iran deal was taking shape],” said a senior U.S. official.

Just like Yaakov Nagel, acting head of Israel’s National Security Council, who argued that there was no connection between the military aid package and the dispute over the Iran nuclear program deal, senior U.S. officials deny that the $38-billion aid package is connected to the lifting of sanctions against Iran.

“Is this military aid deal compensation for Israel because of the Iran nuclear deal? The answer is no. We started this negotiation long before the Iran deal and even before [Hassan] Rohani was elected president. Our entire approach to the region is motivated by our connection to Israel and our wish to keep Israel secure — the military aid deal, the nuclear deal with Iran that we think made Israel safer, and our push for a two-state solution — all those are part of the same logic.”